Why Messi's failure for Argentina is good for football
Leo Messi's tears at the end of the Copa America Centenario final will go down as one of the most iconic images in football history, as will the man himself. Yet, there was a certain cosmic justice about the heart-rendering scene - the best footballer that humanity has ever produced, and he cannot earn the one trophy that he most desires.
‘Because football is a team sport’
It's a cliche that gets bandied about so often that the phrase has lost its meaning. Pay attention, though, because no one understands the meaning of that phrase more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The duo have been deified to an exorbitant degree, what with all the best marketing brains in the world serving to build cathedrals upon which the watching footballing populace gather and worship.
Yet, their struggles with their national sides give us pause. Maybe, just maybe, Andres Iniesta was right when he said, “The man of the match award? I'd split the trophy into eleven pieces, one for each teammate - that's the way I see football.”
This is not to undermine the influence of the supreme footballing individuals that are Cristian Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Indeed, when teams are built around them, they are often unstoppable - it’s not much of a surprise that the pair have shared the Ballon d’Or award for the last 8 years, while picking up multiple domestic and European honours in club football.
Glorification of the Ballon d’Or
Consider one of the greatest students of football, Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager would be the first to acknowledge the genius of Lionel Messi, having revealed that he was close to signing the Argentinian in the past. Yet, the French veteran is staunchly against the individual trophy, saying “I would not vote for any Ballon d’Or. I’m totally against it. I’m a team lover and a specialist of somebody who loves team work. I’m completely against it. I would not vote for anybody.”
This is a man who has spent almost his entire adult life studying football. Don’t dismiss his words as those of a mere heretic – there is substance to the idea that Barcelona and the Argentinian national football team is greater than Lionel Messi. After all, the names that are etched on the Jules Rimet trophy and the European Cup, two of the most coveted trophies in football, are those of teams.
Yet, come January, the football world whips itself into a frenzy – who is the greatest footballer? Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – the debate is fodder for the press and will never end, with very few pausing to ask a far more pertinent question – does it matter? When you’ve heart-breakingly lost out on 3 consecutive finals, aching for a trophy you’ve wanted since you were a child, it doesn’t.
Indeed Messi himself does not hold his individual awards in high esteem, previously saying “I would prefer to win a World Cup rather than five Ballons d'Or if I had to choose. I have always said that I prefer team achievements and the World Cup is the biggest trophy out there.”
Deification of footballers does the sport a disservice
Football is a reflection of society, and it is without doubt that we live in the age of the ‘celebrity’. It’s a society that has fetishized individual achievement to such an extent that a figurehead, like a President of a nation or a company, such as Steve Jobs, is glorified for the legitimate work of hundreds of Apple engineers that worked their technological wizardry to give us their magnificent products.
The beautiful game is not dissimilar, with Ronaldo and Messi taking the plaudits for the work of a Casemiro or a Javier Mascherano, and the other players on the pitch. So perhaps, the sight of a teary-eyed Lionel Messi will allow us to step back and perhaps appreciate how the collective is what deserves our admiration more than the individual.
That deification has not stopped, with many deeming Messi’s retirement from the Argentina national side the death-knell for their ambitions. It’s not – the time is ripe for a manager of the ilk of Diego Simeone, to come in and mould an international side into a team that works with one aim, one goal – much like the Chile side that did win the Copa America Centenario.
Only this time, it could be a team that brings joy to the Argentine populace and not the greatest footballer ever, Lionel Messi.