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Has Lionel Messi’s image been tarnished for good?

Has the five-time Ballon d'Or winner's image been tarnished after the tax fraud case?

The ad-board aptly describes the player in action in this well timed picture. (source: latintimes.com)
 

A series of unfortunate events starting with the loss of the Copa America 2016 final against Chile, followed by the announcement of his prosecution i.e. twenty-one months in prison has brought over a somewhat dark cloud in what has otherwise been a glorious career for Lionel Messi.

Only moments after Messi announced that he was done with the national team, football fans around the world took to social media to announce their disappointment and furore over his decision, calling his move cowardly and heartbreaking in equal measure.

He was then admonished by thousands online on social media because of the tax fraud case. At this moment, one wouldn’t be wrong in wondering whether Lionel Messi’s ‘squeaky-clean’ image has been tarnished for good?

For years, Lionel Messi has been the darling of the media. He was known as the little man from Rosario in Argentina who had fought against all odds despite suffering from a growth hormone deficiency to grow up and conquer the world of football with his magical and mesmerising feet. After moving to Barcelona at the tender age of 13, Lionel Messi came up the ranks and made it to the first team in the 2004-05 season.

Since his debut, Messi took the world by storm forming a fantastic and famed understanding with Ronaldinho. He was recognized by the media as one of the best young players in the world at that time winning the FIFA Best young player award in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The likes of Maradona proudly declaring him his heir.

“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine Football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius and he can become an even better player.” – Maradona on Messi

Messi went on to win tons of trophies, break records and set new ones in their place. Messi’s image was pretty much spotless until the World Cup in 2010. After a poor show with the national team in both the FIFA World Cup in 2010 and the Copa America in 2011, there were many that he could not perform with the Albiceleste and needed the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta to succeed. Messi responded to his critics in style the next year netting 12 goals in 9 games for Argentina under Alejandro Sabella, equaling Gabriel Batistuta’s record for most number of goals scored in a calendar year for his country.

"I do not know how I would have got on with Messi; I'm sure it would have meant fewer goals for me. I think that I would have gone off to play polo before long!” – Gabriel Batistuta on what he would have done if he had to compete with Messi for a spot in the national team.

After four wonderful years with Pep Guardiola, Messi and Barcelona’s performances started to fade just a little bit in the 2012-13 season. His year was marred by injuries and there was a clear drop in his form. This was also incidentally the year when the first accusation of tax fraud was made and a case was filed.

His image in the media took a slight turn with journalists being more open to giving him stick. Was Messi really the ‘good boy’ that Sepp Blatter deemed him to be at a talk at the Oxford Union? Messi was becoming a more polarising figure.

In 2014, Messi looked like he was finally destined for international success after successfully leading Argentina to the finals of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil which unfortunately culminated in a 1-0 loss to Germany in the final. Messi was awarded the Golden Ball award for the best player of the tournament.

Soon after the announcement of the award, there was a huge speculation in the media that Lionel only received the award since it would please the sponsors Adidas and did not really deserve it. The media increasingly began to speculate about Messi’s status as the best ever. The once demi-god was finally being portrayed as a human by the media. 

In 2015, Messi and Barcelona rose back to the top in style winning the treble. Despite a great season with club, Messi once again picked up the silver medal with the national team after Chile beat Argentina on penalties at the Copa America held that year. He allegedly denied the Best Player of the Tournament award.

For his majestic performances in 2015 for club and country, Lionel Messi received his 5th Ballon d’Or award. Messi’s career was back on an upward trajectory. The year was relatively controversy free.

Messi poses with all five of his Ballon d’Or awards. (Source: sport-english.com)

However, things were about to get worse for the Argentinian. When Argentina faced Chile again in the final of the Copa America Centenario 2016 at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, they were supposed to be heavy favourites to life the trophy. Messi’s men had blitzed through their opponents scoring 18 goals in 5 games. However, things wouldn’t go their way in the finals as the finals reached a penalty shootout and Messi put his penalty over the cross bar missing a golden chance to go one ahead against Chile in the shootout.

Lucas Biglia’s miss gave Chile’s Francisco Silva an opportunity to win the trophy which he took with glee. Images of Messi in tears went viral after the final and an utterly disappointed Messi announced his international retirement.

This seemed to be one of the worst days for the Argentine skipper but fate had more bad news in store. The heartbreak of missing out on the Copa America was followed by his a conviction Spanish Authorities for tax fraud and he was sentenced twenty-one months in prison. Despite Messi and his lawyers pleading his innocence in court on multiple occasions, the judge seemed to be unconvinced. His team also released a statement saying that Messi and his father would appeal against the ruling.

Thus, the question needs to be asked whether Messi’s reputation has finally been tarnished forever.

On one hand, it is is only fair to give Lionel the benefit of doubt as he pleads his innocence. His track record has otherwise been impeccably clean and he has never been the sort of player to make his way into the news for controversial comments. The stories of Messi’s struggle and determination to become one of the best players in the world is inspirational, to say the least.

Many deem him to be the best ever. If Messi’s appeal against the court comes out in his favour, then the whole saga around the tax-fraud scandal would be forgotten in just a few moments, such is the magic the little man creates on the football pitch.

On the other hand, Lionel cannot plead innocence by just stating that he was not aware of what was happening with his tax papers. Many, including the Spanish court, believe that there is no way he did not have had an idea about this since it continued till 2009 when he was old enough to deal with his finances.

Besides, Messi has recently been in the news for choking Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, proving that he is no angel on the pitch either. He was also choked by Malaga defender Wellington after apparently calling the player a ‘son of a bitch’. Such incidents could lead us to think Messi isn’t angel that the majority of football fans (and non fans) believe him to be.

Messi chokes Roma defender Yanga-Mbwia in a pre-season game 

When we talk about Lionel Messi in such detail, it is almost impossible to not mention his rival from Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano is one of the players who has always been slated by the media for making controversial comments. He has been deemed as arrogant and selfish.

His bad-boy reputation, a product of the combination of his narcissism and drive to better Messi, precedes him. Yet Cristiano does not have a criminal conviction against his name. He may be many things but a criminal in the eyes of the law he is not.

All said and done, the truth is that Lionel Messi is surely one of the greatest if not ‘the greatest’ football players of all time. He has brought smiles to millions around the world with his football and we hope he could do so in the years to come. Yet his image is now a tainted one and leads us to the question, do we as fans venerate our idols to the extent that we forget that they are just as human and fallible as the rest of us?

Messi is no longer considered the second coming of Jesus and Krishna combined. And his haters have more fuel than they have ever had to stoke the fire. Aren’t we to blame for the vitriol spewed his way as much as Messi is for not being able to handle his finances? In a day and age where popular opinion is driven by social media statuses and tweets, did we create a false god out of a man who just wanted to play football? 


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