Lionel Messi: The flip side of the genius
For all his phenomenal dribbling that help drive him through the heart of the opposition’s defence, ingenuity in tricking eventually hapless defenders who failed to keep up with his acceleration or guile and ultimately shooting the ball with flawless accuracy that ends up in the net within the uprights, Lionel Messi falls short in the role of a leader. I could be vilified for asking the traits of a firebrand motivator in the middle of the pitch, done so effectively by the likes of Tony Adams and Roy Keane who could invigorate their fellowmen and nudge them to go that extra yard just with the championing of their vocal chords, from someone whose job is to be calm and execute other deliverables in a sublime fashion. However, in my defence, Messi chooses to wear the captain’s armband and every great team needs a great leader to spearhead their collective cause apart from the individual duties.
This is however not a pretext for letting the fallacies of the Argentinian midfield and their defensive duties go without blame but the incomprehensibly horrible work rate of the Albiceleste boils down to Sampaoli off the pitch and on Messi for directives and actions taken on the pitch. Mollycoddling has no place in football and for failing to get more out of them as a unit, Lionel Messi should take part of the blame. Not only did he not rise up to the occasion but heads hanged lower and shoulders drooped down more often than the usual when the entire team was looking up to him and feeding off his energy and probably even hoping that he would take them over the line as he has done so on countless occasions which warrant his credibility as a true genius of the game, just not in leadership. Add that to his arsenal of skills and he becomes Maradonaesque if not God-like as claimed by the Argentina faithful.
A lot can be said of the French midfield and their young speedster Mbappé who is as lethal as they come but that is again no excuse for the Argentinian midfield to fold up and scatter away in shambles. Mbappé was no unknown commodity in the world of football having been bought by Paris Saint-Germain for £128 million and any good team would have done their homework for him. Uruguay did eventually lose to France conceding from a set-piece and a freak error from their goalkeeper but they kept Mbappé invisible. Their midfield was disciplined enough to fall in a line close to their back line whenever they did not have possession of the ball.
A compact defence of two lines kills out any kind of dribbling attempt, especially when the opposite team has those who come in with speed and yet Argentina’s appalling work rate meant that they gave acres of space to the French who could come marauding in at their own free will. I might be old-school but I believe that it is a crime to not shut up shop especially when you are leading. Messi, on the other hand, did not have space when Argentina got the ball and that speaks volumes of the French discipline.
Ultimately, it is a process of filtering out even the minutest of insipidness and the exalting of better quality and no one can argue that the two best teams have reached the final and it will be a mouth-watering clash of nouveau and semi-nouveau giants. The very fact that the usual contenders have been eliminated and new units are coming up is what makes this World Cup so very special as it reinforces the fact that statistics don’t account for anything in the face of true grit and determination and the gap between teams are becoming smaller.
It was Messi’s job to close the gap to France and it was not a debacle by any stretch of the imagination, thanks to Argentina’s attacking quality but a lot more is expected of him, especially when fans had sold furniture back home to be able to fly all the way from South America to Kazan, an oblivious old town in the vast expanse of Russia. Hundreds lay on the streets outside the stadium having nowhere to go after the game but sleep at the airport at night and catch the earliest economically possible flight back home. In their own words, exhaustion meant nothing and is not a hindrance to passion but the internal devastation is and that is the true essence of the World Cup – hoping for glory amongst the myriad of options for misery.
You might find better quality in all eleven positions on the field in a top game between top clubs in the major European leagues but you will find everyone going back home right away at the end of the game, one camp in utter jubilation and another in gloom but going back nevertheless. You won’t find hordes of people in abject misery with nowhere to go right away with their dreams in disarray and knowing that hope will not be rekindled until another four long years while stranded thousands of miles away from their respective homelands. Yes, football still does belong to the middle class no matter how much corporate greed tries to strangulate it and for all of that Messi and his band of players had a greater responsibility but all that is now history.
This critique of Messi might be harsh but it comes from a special place of admiration and his greatness deserves the football World Cup just as Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the greatest cricketer to have played the game, whose career would not have been appropriate without the cricket World Cup.
Both incomparable greats in their own fields but exceedingly poor in captaincy and leadership. Sachin Tendulkar’s tenure as captain was marked with dismal individual performances. However, after being long unshackled from the burdens of captaincy, he took the team in 2003 to a World Cup final only to fall short before Australia but he did win the “Man of the Tournament” and very deservedly so. Lionel Messi had a similar run in the 2014 World Cup where he carried his team to the final only to fall short before Germany but therein he was awarded the equivalent of the "Man of the tournament" award and quite deservingly so.
The parallels don’t end there and in the consecutive cricket World Cup in 2007, India crashed out in the group stage and Argentina would have in their consecutive football World Cup after dreary displays against Iceland and Croatia and it was only Rojo’s goal in the business end of the match against Nigeria that saw Argentina through but crash out eventually in the next round to France.
You might see a pattern developing here and India going on to win the next World Cup in 2011 which was Sachin Tendulkar’s last representation in the coveted tournament and being currently at thirty-one years of age, the one in Qatar is going to be Messi’s last in a football World Cup and last shot at the prize that would complement a glittering career lavishly laden with all the prizes in the club level. This might all be wishful analyzing, given the requisite of building up of an all-round team by someone in the calibres of Diego Simeone - a team where Messi did not need to burden the entire responsibility and given the nature of mismanagement of the highest degrees at the football federation in Argentina but hope springs eternal even in the midst of the greatest of heartbreaks.