While our number of soccer games to watch has sadly dwindled rapidly the past few weeks, it is still exciting, as the quality of the games has increased. One of the tournaments, the Copa América, has already ended. The centennial of the tournament, it was definitely a special one as the United States men’s national soccer team progressed all the way to the semifinals and traditional powerhouse teams like Mexico and Brazil crashed out early. This year’s final was a rematch of last year’s, and Chile once again beat Argentina in penalty kicks. While congratulations must be offered to Chile, this year’s Copa América will undoubtedly be remembered more for the actions of megastar Lionel Messi.
First of all, Messi missed his penalty kick. This in itself is newsworthy, because Messi is one of the most reliable penalty takers. It is more important because Argentina ended up losing the final. But this penalty kick is most important because after the game, Messi announced his decision to retire from the Argentine national team altogether.
That’s right, the 29-year-old captain of Argentina, who is widely considered one of the two best players in the world, has retired from Argentina. For those who do not follow soccer, this is the equivalent of Sidney Crosby retiring suddenly from the Canadian national hockey team or Stephen Curry suddenly deciding he would never play another game for Team USA. This is absolutely mindboggling. It is the kind of thing I would expect from Portugal’s megastar and the other player in contention for the “best player in the world” title — Cristiano Ronaldo — who absolutely has a flair for the dramatic — but not the ever-so-calm Messi.
There is no denying Messi’s brilliance, with his eight La Liga titles, four Copa del Rey titles and four Champions League titles. But his entire career has been overshadowed by a distinct lack of international triumphs. Messi’s only international trophy is the gold medal he won at the 2008 Olympics. In four attempts at winning either Copa América or the World Cup, Messi has gone home empty-handed each time. It raises the question — rather unfairly, in my book — of whether Messi can actually even be considered for the title of best player of all time when he has no World Cup or Copa América triumphs in his name.
For instance, the Brazilian footballer Pelé, who is considered the best player of all time, has an incredible three World Cups to his name. Even the Argentine great Diego Maradona led his team to a World Cup victory back in 1986. For some reason, Argentina has proven itself incapable of giving its star the accolade he wants the most.
It is unclear how much of Messi’s decision to retire was based on his frustration with the Argentine Football Association. The entire AFA has been in an upheaval ever since its longtime chairman passed away last year. Copa América for Argentina was marred by reports of the team’s travel plans constantly being delayed, the training facilities being inadequate and the frequent problems that arose with the hotel rooms. Messi went so far as to voice his displeasure on Instagram, calling the AFA “a disaster.” It has gotten so bad that FIFA decided to step in and take over temporarily, just days before the championship game. There are also rumors that Messi will not be the only player to quit playing for his country: Up to eight others, including Gonzalo Higuain, are supposedly considering quitting.
So while it appears that the AFA was a deciding factor, ultimately, Messi’s decision to retire was the result of the emotional component that comes with losing such an important game. He was obviously devastated at missing his kick, likely feeling as though he had let his teammates down. There is also the fact that there has always been so much pressure on him to succeed and carry his teammates to victory, a la Maradona.
Critics never hesitate to rip Messi apart when Argentina fails, even when he plays as outstandingly as he did in this tournament. After a third consecutive year of losing in a final, it is understandable that Messi would feel as though he is incapable of going on. It would almost be more surprising if he were not upset. I cannot even begin to imagine what that must feel like.
However, I think that he is making an enormous mistake. Title or no title, I believe he is the best player in the world. His five Ballon d’Ors, an award given to the best player in the world in a given year; three Golden Shoes, an award recognizing the top goal scorer in European club play; 55 national team goals, the Argentine record, mind you; and 312 goals for club team FC Barcelona back me up here. What this man is able to do with a soccer ball is just remarkable.
At this point in his career, he almost does not even need an international title to prove his greatness. He is just that good. It also needs to be mentioned that he still has years ahead of him. Argentina has steadily gotten better and better, and while the Argentine team has not yet won, it is consistently making it all the way to finals of tournaments. Argentina plays world-class football and at the rate it has been going, it would have been inevitable for Argentina to win a title for Messi.
I know I am not alone in thinking Messi has made a mistake. Hopefully, it was just a heat-of-the-moment decision meant to spur changes in the AFA and Messi will return to Argentina once he has had enough time to think about it. If not, we have all lost a piece of one of the greatest joys in watching soccer, and one of the greatest players to ever step onto the pitch.
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