Lionel Messi Tries to Slay His Ghosts
Saturday’s Copa América final against Brazil feels like Messi’s chance to deliver the title he and Argentina have chased for a generation.
By Rory Smith
As soon as he was back in the changing room, away from the glare of the cameras and the eyes of the world, Lionel Messi got rid of it. He had been presented with the Golden Ball, the prize for the outstanding player in the 2014 World Cup, on the field at the Maracana, and he had accepted it, because it was the decent thing to do.
Unsmiling, he had held the trophy carefully, delicately, as if it was an explosive that might go off at any second, for as long as he could bear. As soon as he could hand it over, though, he did so, giving it to Alfredo Pernas, one of his most trusted consiglieri on Argentina’s staff, to do whatever he needed to do with it. Messi did not care.
All he knew was that he did not want it. Why would he? He had been given the trophy only a few minutes after Argentina had lost the World Cup final, after the one prize he craved more than any other in soccer had eluded him at the last. He did not need a memento for that night to be etched into his brain. He would, he would later say, regret the defeat for the rest of his life.
Seven years later, Messi returns to Maracana this weekend. This time, it may be the Copa América on the line, rather than the World Cup, and it is Brazil that stands in his way, rather than Germany, but still: Saturday’s final feels like Messi’s chance — perhaps his last, best chance — to “slay the ghosts” of 2014, as Cristian Grosso put it in La Nácion this week.
That is not, sadly, quite how it works. There is no balm for the lingering ache of that defeat to Mario Götze and Germany. Once Pernas had whisked his unwanted trophy out of sight, out of mind, Messi sat in the changing room and cried, his friend and teammate Pablo Zabaleta said, “like a baby.” He was, in that, not alone.
Messi has said he has never been able to watch the game back (though why anyone would expect him to do so is not entirely clear). He does not need to, not really: The things he could have done differently, the chances wasted by Gonzalo Higuaín and Rodrigo Palacio are scoured into his soul. They will haunt him for the rest of his days, whether he wins the Copa América this weekend or the World Cup next year. He will never win that World Cup. He will never have that chance again.
That is not to say that Messi has been short of animating force over the last three weeks or so. He opened his tournament with a brilliant free kick against Chile — there is no point describing it: You know what it looks like, because it was Messi, and it was a free kick, and you can picture what that looks like immediately — and he has barely paused for breath since.
He scored twice more in a rout of Bolivia, added another goal late in the quarterfinal win against Ecuador, and then created Lautaro Martínez’s goal in the semifinal against Colombia. Nothing, though, encapsulated Messi’s mood in the tournament quite like what happened during the penalty shootout that settled that game.
Messi has always been a quiet, undemonstrative sort of genius. Even his teammates acknowledge that he is not exactly a rabble-rousing demagogue of a leader. He does not stir hearts and gird loins with his soaring rhetoric; he inspires not only with his actions but also his mere presence.
He can, at times, be so unruffled on the field that he almost seems distant, detached from what is unfolding on it. Messi has always given the impression of seeing soccer in a different way from almost any other human: an elevated, bird’s-eye perspective that allows him to see angles and passes and patterns of play that elude others. There are occasions when it is possible to believe that he sees the game so clearly that he can also discern its essential meaninglessness.
Against Colombia, though, that changed. Messi was on the halfway line, arms draped around the shoulders of his teammates, when Yerry Mina — a former teammate at Barcelona, though only briefly — stepped forward to take Colombia’s third attempt.
He missed, and as he looked away, as he turned his back on the celebrating Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, he saw Messi marching toward him, bellowing in his direction. “Baila ahora, baila ahora,” he seemed to be saying: dance now, dance now, an apparent reference to Mina’s celebrations after Colombia’s shootout victory in the previous round.
It was, to put it mildly, a little out of character for Messi: more aggressive, more confrontational, more vindictive than is typical. But it was in keeping not only with his approach to the tournament, but also with that of Argentina as a whole. Emiliano Martínez, for one, drew opprobrium in Colombia for taunting his opponents during the shootout; he had, according to more than one observer, gone a little too far with the gamesmanship.
His retort, and Argentina’s, would doubtless be that this is no time for half measures. There is not a single player on Argentina’s squad who has seen it win a World Cup. A majority have never experienced their country’s lifting of the Copa América trophy, which Argentina has not won since 1993.
It has made finals, of course, and plenty of them: losing to Brazil in the Copa in 2004 and 2007, and to Chile in 2015 and 2016. Given how often the tournament is played — once every six months or so, it seems — and given Argentina’s resources, a generation without victory, and Argentina’s gradual decline from world power to habitual runner-up, is a source of stinging embarrassment.
For Messi, though, it is more personal. Twice in recent years he has considered stepping away from the national team, effectively declaring it to be more trouble than it is worth: once after losing the 2016 Copa América final and again, more definitively, in the aftermath of Argentina’s early elimination from the 2018 World Cup.
Outside Argentina, he would have been forgiven for doing so. For years, the country’s soccer federation seemed to have little or no idea of how to build a suitable stage for the finest player, certainly of his generation and possibly of any. Messi was expected to carry a whole nation on his back; when he stumbled under the weight, it was because he was too weak, not the load too heavy.
Besides, on a personal level, he did not need international success. Soccer has moved on from the era when greatness was forged in the white heat of World Cups and continental championships. Increasingly, it is the Champions League that defines not just a player’s status, but also his legacy. It was there that Messi, winner of four titles with Barcelona, had made himself immortal.
And still he could not walk away. Messi came back after 2016 and he came back after 2018 and he is there, now, at 34, officially a free agent after his contract at Barcelona expired. Even as the remaining years of his career are suddenly mired in uncertainty — the club’s precarious financial position makes it appear as if it may not, in actual fact, be able to re-sign him — Messi is doing what he has had to do for a decade and a half: pulling Argentina along in his wake.
There were times in the early years of his career when it was occasionally asserted that Messi did not feel the same kinship with Argentina — and Argentina did not feel the same kinship with Messi — as would have been the case had he not been living in Europe, in Spain, since he was a child. There was a distance between him and his homeland, the theory went, one that meant he could not replicate his club form in his national jersey.
That Messi is still here, still trying, is the ultimate proof of the disingenuousness of that belief. He is not here in Brazil because he wants to make up for his personal disappointment in 2014. That, he will know, is impossible. Some scars never heal. He is here, as he has always been, because he is slaying someone else’s ghosts: all of Argentina’s near misses, all of its disappointments, all of its years of want.
He is, he knows, running out of time. He has one more chance, realistically, to win a World Cup, in Qatar at the end of next year. It is not impossible that he will return to the Copa América once more, too: he will be 37 when the tournament is next played, in 2024. He will by then have been playing for his national team for two decades. He has one regret, at least, that will stay with him for the rest of his life. He does not want a second.
A Tournament Too Far
Within UEFA, the overriding emotion will be relief. Relief, to some extent, that the European Championship has been a success. It has not been diminished by a raft of coronavirus outbreaks. It has not been complicated by further lockdowns or tightened travel restrictions. It has not been played out to a backdrop of empty stadiums.
Mainly, though, there will be relief that it is over. Even without the pandemic, this tournament was a logistical nightmare: 11 stadiums in 11 cities spread across four time zones, all subject to different local conditions. There will be no appetite within European soccer to stage a pan-continental tournament again.
And that, frankly, is a good thing. Not simply because something is lost, however slight and insignificant, when a tournament is not hosted by a single nation — drawing in fans from across the world, changing the fabric of the place it calls home, even if it is only for a month — but because the diffusion of the games has compromised the integrity of the competition.
The ludicrous Spanish talk show “El Chiringuito” might have descended into tinfoil hat territory when it suggested on Wednesday night that Euro 2020 had been “shaped” in favor of England, but that the way the tournament was structured offered certain nations an advantage is beyond dispute.
It was not by chance that all four semifinalists played all three of their group games at home, reducing the amount of time and energy they might have lost to travel. It was, most likely, a relevant factor in how much Denmark tired in its semifinal that it had been forced to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, in the previous round, while England had made the comparatively shorter trip — its only venture outside it borders in a month — to Rome.
There is always a host nation, of course, and the host nation always has an advantage. But in ordinary circumstances, every team in the tournament takes a base in that country to reduce travel time. On a practical if not a spiritual level, the playing field is level.
That does not mean either Italy or England will be an undeserving champion. They have been the two best teams in the tournament (rather than the two with the most talented individuals). Both warrant their places in the final. But both have enjoyed far from universal conditions. It would be helpful if that did not happen again.
An All-Euros Team You Can Trust
A strange convention has taken hold in soccer. It has manifested in the Premier League and the Champions League, and now it has infected the European Championship, too. It should be condemned by any right-thinking person, anyone who has the slightest understanding of sport, and it is this: the idea that the best player on the field has to be on the winning side.
Ordinarily, and even more absurdly, man-of-the-match honors go to someone who has scored a goal. It happened, again, at both semifinals this week. Harry Kane might have sent England to the final at Denmark’s expense on Wednesday, but he was not the best player on his team (Raheem Sterling), let alone the best player on the field (Kasper Schmeichel, by some distance).
Federico Chiesa picked up the award on Tuesday, despite only playing half of the game, and despite Pedri, the 18-year-old Spain midfielder, producing a performance of quite staggering poise and control and maturity.
So, with that in mind, and conscious that the official version will simply be a list of the 11 players who have most recently scored a goal, here is a team of the tournament that actually, you know, reflects how the players have performed. It is possible, after all, to play well despite defeat.
Schmeichel is an easy choice as goalkeeper; Leonardo Spinazzola (Italy) edges Denmark’s Joakim Maehle at left back, and Kyle Walker has been the standout right back. Central defense is more difficult, but Giorgio Chiellini (Italy) and Simon Kjaer (Denmark) probably just shade England’s Harry Maguire.
In midfield: Pedri (Spain) and Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard join Granit Xhaka, Switzerland’s captain, with spots for Kalvin Phillips (England) and Paul Pogba (France) on the bench. England’s Sterling and Italy’s Chiesa are simple choices up front, with Kane beating out Alexander Isak (Sweden), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium) and Patrik Schick (Czech Republic) for the central striker role.
Most of them, of course, have played for winning teams, but it is the inverse of the relationship that UEFA — among others — seems to have envisaged: Their teams have won because the players have played well, and not vice versa.
My apologies for offending André Naef, whose location will become abundantly clear when you find out how I upset him. “May I remind you that our ‘uninspiring’ team not only beat France, the world champion, and nearly beat Spain, despite being reduced to 10 players,” he wrote.
The Spanish, he added, “showed a certain elegance” in victory, “unlike your rather disparaging comments.” Disparagement for what Switzerland achieved was not my intention; far from it. Few countries have made quite so much of their resources over the last decade as the Swiss. They warrant nothing but praise.
David Gladstone, meanwhile, pitches July 8, 1982, as one of the finest days of tournament soccer in history. “Italy against Poland may not have been the greatest game, but it was more than made up for by West Germany against France, including the noncall of the foul on Patrick Battiston. And they took place at different times.”
Yes, that can be added to the list. Whether it tops France/Switzerland/Spain/Croatia day, though, is a matter of debate: West Germany’s win is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, after all.
That’s all for this week and, I suppose, this season, too. This is the end of a long and hopefully quite enjoyable 2020-21, and it is a fitting finish: Brazil against Argentina and then Italy against England. Here’s hoping that the next 48 hours are even better than last Monday, or July 8, 1982, or any of the other contenders. Enjoy the next two days, wherever you are. I hope your team wins.
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