Football isn’t just about winning: Why Lionel Messi’s decision to retire is his weakest one yet
Argentina lost yet another final with Messi missing a crucial spot-kick, but is his decision to retire the right one?
The football world came in for a shock on Sunday night/Monday morning when Lionel Messi announced his decision to retire from the Argentina national side after losing the Copa America 2-16 final to Chile on penalties.
This was Messi’s third major tournament final loss in three years – the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa America and now this. The defeat was a big blow for the Barcelona star; he is disillusioned with the national side and the constant lack of success has become a major problem for the so-called “best player of our times”.
Argentina have often failed to perform at the grandest stage and there have been several naysayers doubting Messi’s performances for the national side. After all, even Diego Maradona took a poor side to World Cup glory in 1986, and the pressure of not winning anything for Argentina seems to have finally taken its toll on Messi.
However, should International football just be about winning trophies, or should it be about representing the country and giving it all for the side?
There's a sharp contrast when you look at some of the other countries participating in another international tournament at the moment – Wales, for example. Gareth Bale has never stated that he would quit the side if the Welsh team would not make it to a major tournament. The side isn’t expected to win Euro 2016 or any other major tournament but Bale hasn’t thought of quitting, ever.
Representing the nation is what most of us dream of achieving
Nationalistic pride is essential in sport; we all would love to represent the nation in whatever form it is possible. Bale even brushed off the idea of playing for England, even though he could have qualified for the Three Lions as his grandmother is English. Representing Wales, a much weaker team, was more important for Bale than having a real chance of winning a title with England (yes, England aren’t great at big tournaments but they have a decent chance of doing well).
“I wouldn’t care if I never qualified - I would never play for England,”
Looking at some of the former greats of football, playing for the country was a huge achievement for them – irrespective of the reward at the end. George Weah, considered by many as one of the best African footballers of all time, never got a chance to play in a World Cup, let alone have a realistic chance of winning the tournament.
The former Milan and Chelsea striker even went to the extent of funding the Liberian side, and he coached the team for a spell as well. Didn't it ever occur to Weah that he was being let down by his side? He kept playing because he wanted to do well for his country, and he did lead them to two African Cup of Nations tournaments.
Messi has played in multiple World Cups and Copa Americas, and normal people would give anything to have even one chance of playing at such a big stage. Even the English side had players such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Paul Gascoigne – they were all destined to achieve greatness for the side, but only retired from the international circuit when they knew their bodies could not take it anymore.
Ryan Giggs, another Welsh star, also played for the national side but was never close to making it to any international tournament. The easy way would have been to quit the national side when he was 27-28 and concentrate on his club career, something that he did do when he hit his 30s. Even Giggs had a similar comment to Bale’s when it came to playing for another national side that could have provided him a better chance of winning silverware.
"I'd rather go through my career without qualifying for a major championship than play for a country where I wasn't born or which my parents didn't have anything to do with"
A little closer home, we could look into Sachin Tendulkar’s record of having played five World Cups before lifting the trophy in 2011. Sachin too could have retired from the international game but stayed on, as playing for the country is a privilege and an honour.
The supporting players also have a say
Messi plays for one of the most talented squads in world football, Argentina. The likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Romero and Angel Di Maria, just to name a few, all play for the biggest clubs in the world.
Iceland, one of the surprise performers in Euro 2016, don’t have a professional league and most of their players don’t even play in the top four leagues in Europe. Yet, the passion and commitment shown by each player on the pitch is second to none.
But the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has a great group of players, and with such quality in the team, the failure to win any major trophy seems to be eating him up inside. Just like Cristiano Ronaldo, he has dominated club football for years but the lack of any silverware with the Albiceleste will always keep him a step lower than Pele and Maradona.
The Argentine superstar only has one Olympic gold medal to his name with the national team and that too came in 2008. Barring that it has been a horrendous run with the national side for Messi. The frustration of not achieving success for a period as long as eight years does lead to self-doubts.
The pressure of not living up to expectations
Even the manager of Argentina, Gerardo Martino, had stated in 2015 that Messi should have retired simply because of the pressure of not winning enough for the side.
"Talk of him considering retiring from the national team is frustrating but understandable; if I was Messi, I'd have stopped playing for Argentina a long time ago."
Everyone expected Messi to lift some form of major title with Argentina, especially seeing his incredible performances for Barcelona over the years. Sadly, that hasn’t happened, and his three Copa America final losses and 2014 World Cup defeat must be killing him on the inside.
Messi is human after all; no one can repeatedly take such failures on the big stage. Maybe it is best if he does stay away from international football and concentrate on his career with Barcelona where he can win a glut of titles in the coming years.
Would Messi be considered the greatest footballer of all time if he does not return to play for Argentina? Possibly not; after all, the criterion for deciding that seems to be based on his performance for the national side and more importantly, lifting the World Cup. There can only be one player who can take the title of best player in the world from him now and that is Cristiano Ronaldo.
If the Portuguese star does lift the Euro 2016 title with a side that hasn’t been playing good football at all, Ronaldo would certainly move a notch ahead of the Argentine maestro. Maybe that would be the “kick” that Messi needs to ruffle a few feathers and push the Argentina side to greater heights (if he does return).
The ball is in Messi’s court, he still has time on his hands and being just 29 years of age, he could play in the 2018 World Cup for the South American side. For now, it does seem that Messi is running away from his obligation of representing millions of Argentinians on the football pitch; but would you be able to grudge a superstar after all that he has given for the team?
Lionel Messi remains one of the greatest but this decision does push him further back in the race to be the best ever of all time.