“When I stop enjoying football, I’ll retire” – Lionel Messi, 2012.
Over the years, you look at the players that’ve come and gone, those that gave you joy and pride. You look back and think how it was only like yesterday, they put on their retro-looking jersey for the very first time and stormed the field like wildfire. And for the majority of those players, the ending creeped up over us like a scavenger on a hunt without us even realising it. So let’s take a moment to study the current facts.
When Leo lost the World Cup back in Brazil, following a miserable season and the passing away of Tito Vilanova, we might’ve thought that it couldn’t have gotten worse for La Pulga. But then add a third and a fourth attempt to ultimately fail in the Copa America final and a decision to quit the national team, even leaving aside the utter collapse of the AFA, and the world turns its concern to Messi.
Now– it’s easier to grasp this, understand it, even sympathise with it, than to experience it. Messi was never a man of rash reaction. Quitting the national team was Leo acknowledging that this is the end of his legacy for his country – four finals and no gold. In that moment of depression, a man who had given everything he could for his country just gave up. This isn’t the story of the man who almost made it, this is the story of the established número uno who gave up on trying.
I can fully understand the pain of losing when you’ve been so close this many times. However, to let it decide your legacy when your legs haven’t given up is beyond the pain of failure. totalBarça colleague Savvas Marcou spoke of how the end of Messi’s Argentina career was down to the fact that he lost the joy of playing with the national team. That’s a fair statement, but that only adds to the pressure in Barcelona.
Barcelona’s the city that owns the legacy of Lionel Messi and, for now, no one can take that away from him. Barcelona’s his kingdom as he reigns from his house in Castelldefels. All worship and love him, no matter the circumstances. Heck, they would build him a statue over the Tibidabo resembling Rio’s “The Redeemer” if they didn’t mind the resentment. He’s been in the city for the majority of his life, but as one of his stories comes to an end, people start to wonder about a second ending.
A few days ago, Messi’s misery on the pitch was met with a PR crash off the pitch when he was sentenced to a suspended 21 months in jail after he was found guilty for tax fraud, after being already linked to the Panama Papers only a couple of months before. This altered many people’s perception of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, a man who has fought to keep his private life away from the media as possible. So while that obviously was yet another blow for Leo, with a Copa America hangover already on his mind, Leo was suddenly victimised brutally.
And in such moment of crisis, the club did the only thing they’ve ever done when it came to matters concerning the finest footballer on the globe – they stuck by their man.
In doing so however, they’ve shot themselves in the foot when they launched a campaign with the hashtag #WeAreAllLionelMessi horrifically backfired. They thought that they could get people taking photos or sending a message with both hands open to support a multi-million euro scandal and mask a tax fraud case? It’s insane.
Not only is it ethically questionable to support a criminal case, but doesn’t even make sense from a PR perspective. In doing so, they’ve only got people to talk about the case even more, which is exactly what they don’t want. It was clearly a miscalculated mistake, but the reasoning behind it was my concern.
FC Barcelona is a big club, a stunt like this is suicidal and it has backfired indubitably. So let’s trail the thought process. A convicted player as the star of your club doesn’t necessarily bode well to an already fragile image of Barça. To support his claim in a statement shows that the club will side with the player regardless of the court’s order. This could’ve been done subtly with a club statement yet the club has purposely thought out a utterly horrible campaign plan. This it begs the question – why go so far to change people’s perspective of him?
The outcomes were at best for everyone to buy into it ridiculously and show support, which obviously didn’t happen. At worst, still prove to Lionel Messi that this club is with him through thick and thin, even if it has to stab itself in the heart so thoroughly. That’s how desperate the club was to show affection to Leo.
Now, with all these facts in mind we come to ask ourselves – why so desperate? Could it be because Leo’s sorrows have gone deeper than we realise? Could it be that perhaps Leo has begun to become disinterested in the sport itself? Even if we’re talking only marginally, does this signal his upcoming “end of joy” in football?
As a writer, I’ve learned not to make the mistake of trying to predict the future. However at the age of 29, Lionel Messi is about to play his final season before crossing the age of 30. Players constantly get questioned over their consistency once they cross the age of 30, with Luis Suárez the first of the MSN set to experience this come his birthday next January. Both spectacular and quality players that will for sure beat the myth of age and play wonderfully to prove it. The signs however are pushing towards a final chapter for Messi in Barcelona, whether that be in three or four years.
I’m not here to debate whether he’ll rejoin the national team in 2018, but more about how somehow Leo must find his joy for football once again when the season kicks off and he probably will. Leo could come out of this misery either stronger and hungrier or disinterested and lost. At this point, Messi must discover for himself whether he can overcome the public’s perception of him on and off the field and let it drive him like his eternal rival, or succumb to the hangover of these dark times rather than coming back stronger from it.
One thing, however, always pushed Messi to persevere and come back from tough times – his rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo. Whether he admits it or not, Messi has been driven by the Portuguese as much it has been the other way around. Their numbers, fan bases, records, and accolades keep pushing the two to win more. So in a season where his adversary won the Champions League with his club and the Euro Cup with his nation, Messi finds himself in a position where he must re-spark that rivalry in what could be the the very last couple of seasons and battles between the fantastic duo, as Ronaldo looks likely to collect his fourth Ballon d’Or in January already – with just a dash of PR work needed to wrap it all up.
Ronaldo is 31 and two can still go head-to-head for long, however, we must acknowledge that the two are past their prime even though they still arguably are the two best current players in the world. And the facts are, both of these players’ contracts finish by the summer of 2018. Both players can leave their respective clubs being eternal legends and top scorers. The Portuguese will be 33 and the Argentine will be 31 – perfect stages to leave their respective clubs and move on to their final chapters of their careers – be it a former club or final sellout. And until either renew their contract, that is the reality we face for football’s greatest rivalry ever.
The only question that remains is, who will have the final laugh?
Who knows? Maybe Messi will come back for Argentina in Russia and give one last go at his dream. Maybe not. Maybe Leo renews his contract despite all the off-field chaos going with his case. Or maybe not.
The only thing that matters however, if this is indeed La Pulga‘s final chapter with Barça and Spain, I can but only wish that this special man finds his joy once more for the beautiful game. Be it through a rivalry or another storm of accolades, Messi will want nothing more than to finish his career in Barça on an absolute high. At least that’s the Messi I’ve watched over the years and got to know and understand, not the one I can’t possibly relate to at this moment.