Lionel Messi partially to blame for Argentina heartbreak

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Pat Riley, distinguished basketball player, coach and executive, once summed up his sport thus: “There’s only two things in the NBA —there’s winning and there’s misery.” Beyond the grammatical faux-pas, Riley was actually too short-sighted; for his pithy maxim extends to the entire professional sports landscape.

The Argentina national football team have experienced misery twice over during the past 12 months—in an extra-time heart-breaker against Germany in the World Cup final, and in a penalty shootout failure against hosts Chile in the Copa América final—continuing Lionel Messi’s long international nightmare.

Despite having achieved everything there is to achieve in club football, Messi’s inability to secure the sport’s ultimate prize, the World Cup (or a major international trophy of any kind, for that matter), leaves a gaping hole on his résumé.


Nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped the multitude of “Messianics” from praising the “messiah” to high heaven, and to prematurely bestow him—whose undeniable otherworldly exploits on a football pitch are fresh on everyone’s minds—as the greatest player of all-time. They justify it by amplifying Messi’s feats on the domestic front and dismissing, or at least rationalizing away, his lack of it on the international stage (never mind that the two usual suspects for the GOAT title, Diego Maradona from the previous era and Pelé from the era preceding that, not only won the ultimate prize but was the main reason for their teams doing so).

The most ardent defense the Messianics have of their man is to point out—quite rightly—how often he has been hamstrung by his bumbling Albicelestes teammates in the biggest moments. 

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Messi carried his team to the World Cup final, but his teammates could not pick up the slack in the ultimate match: there were the golden chances spilled by Gonzalo Higuaín in the first half (the woeful miss after being gifted by a wayward Toni Kroos header; the gross negligence in not looking across the line as he made his run for the disallowed goal, compounded by the sheer obliviousness, after he slipped the ball past Manuel Neuer, in not even checking with the assistant referee for the mere possibility of an offside); the questionable substitution of the best-performing Ezequiel Lavezzi at half time by then-manager Alejandro Sabella; and the panicked lob miss by Rodrigo Palacio in extra time.

Fast forward 12 months, and Messi was let down by his teammates again, the Messianics would protest—too much, me thinks. This time it was the Copa America final: there was the unnecessary suicide run by Ángel Di María that nicked his hamstring; the preference of perennial big-match underachiever Higuaín as a substitute over the in-form forward Carlos Tevez by (current) manager Gerardo Martino; the ill-advised and sloppy pass from Lavezzi and the subsequent botched attempt by Higuaín at the end of regulation; and the penalty misses by Higuaín (again) and Éver Benega—after Messi coolly converted his—in the shootout.

Turn any one of these litany of close misses in each final into a make, the Messianics contend, and a new timeline is created which eventually sees Argentina as world and continental champions—and Messi as the all-time greatest.

But that is not a fair way to play the what-if game: to bend the arc of history in just the one direction. For Messi also squandered chances that could have turned the tides of history: a one-on-one against Neuer in the second half of the Cup final that just missed the far post, and a Cristiano Ronaldo-like free kick attempt at match’s end to force a crapshoot of a penalty shootout; and a distinct lack of adjustment in the Copa final to counter Chile’s physical style of play and the extra man sent to mark him.

Then again, there is also the matter of his truly anonymous performance in the World Cup semifinal, which, fortunately for Messi, was overshadowed by Dutch manager Louis van Gaal’s colossal gaffe in stranding his specialist spot-kick stopper Tim Krul—responsible for saving two of the five penalties in the shootout of Holland’s previous match—on the bench in a drab match that was destined for penalties.

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This is of course not to suggest that Messi should be made the scapegoat for Argentina’s big-match failures. There is enough blame to go around: Messi’s teammates, his managers, and, not least, Messi himself. 

Because just like every other player who takes to the field (or manager who veers toward the dugout), Messi must be held accountable—especially since he is his team’s best player, captain, quasi-manager and totemic leader. 

To paraphrase a line from a parable of the actual Messiah: To whom much is given, much is expected.

Published by Harry Hongcolumnist at Barcablog.

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