“Tonight, all the political programmes on TV are about football,” Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, Argentina’s leading sports columnist, tells me from Buenos Aires. He has just returned home on the underground, and noticed that the arrivals board read “No te vayas Lio”: Lio, don’t go.
That phrase had been trending on social media since the early hours of Monday, when the Argentina captain announced, in tears, that he had quit international football after defeat in the Copa América final to Chile. Messi missed a penalty in the shootout and the result extended Argentina’s title drought to 23 years.
It was 10 years ago that Messi made his World Cup debut. He was hailed as the great hope for a country that had already won two World Cups, a country in which football is central to notions of national identity. “Football has resonance everywhere,” Moores says. “But more here in Argentina, because it really is the one area in which we are a recognised force in the world.”
Lending credence to the idea that everything can be explored through football, a divided Argentina entered into endless discussions throughout the day. Young people said that, having missed the World Cup wins, they are more affected and hurt by Messi turning away from the possibility of giving them a taste of victory. Older fans explain in detail why a man who cannot deliver a trophy shouldn’t be so revered.
Opponents of the current government took comfort in the fact that the nation’s president, Mauricio Macri, would not pick up reflected glory from an Argentina Copa win, and pundits devoted much of the day to disseminating the many ways in which Messi ‘bottles’ it when it comes to delivering for his country.
Eminent thinkers discussed whether the bad karma is his alone or belongs to the whole squad, whether the curse is when he wears the strip or when he gets to a final.
Among the many, many comments on social media, this one from Agustin Suárez Doreski on Facebook is a good synopsis: “Enough of Messi. I’ve had enough. I’m tired of reading so many ignorants criticising him for losing another final. To have him called a failure by people who allow routine to defeat them on a daily basis, who allow themselves to get walked over in their jobs and get robbed by the political classes. Messi doesn’t ‘feel’ the Argentina strip … says some geezer who hasn’t hugged his parents for years.
“Messi has to grow a pair … says a bloke who tomorrow is going to pretend to fall asleep on the train when a pregnant woman walks on. Messi doesn’t turn up for the finals … shouts another who quit college because he couldn’t be bothered to study. Messi is a coward … says the one who let the girl of his dreams run off with another because he didn’t dare tell her he loved her.”
And in a nutshell, those are the accusations levied at him by many in Argentina. Messi grew up in Barcelona after moving to Spain when he was young to pursue his football career; he became an icon for a club that has marked a new standard in excellence; and he has had to endure whistling and booing when playing on home soil. The weight of the Argentina strip has clearly become a burden, in spite of the many in his home nation who adore him.
Football generally is seen in as many different ways as there are people watching it. But at the 2006 World Cup, when Argentina were knocked out by Germany in a match in which the then manager, José Pekerman, chose to leave a young Messi on the bench, the world shouted: “Messi should have played”. We now know about Messi’s almost pathological stage fright, his vomiting on the eve of big games, but it’s a guess whether these were factors Pekerman took into account at the time. Since then, Argentinian football has tried to create circumstances in which Messi can thrive. Managers are appointed and people say Messi wanted them. Players are dropped and people say Messi asked for it. But we have no evidence for these theories, we simply attribute power to Messi, and then reproach him when he doesn’t live up to our expectations.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Messi was thinking when he quit, but there is a feeling that this was not a knee-jerk reaction but a careful decision that had been brewing for some time. At 29, now a father, and having become a household name worldwide with all that this entails – fiscal scrutiny, public interpretations of his every move, accountability on a scale unimaginable to non-celebrities – it is possible Messi was planning to retire even if Argentina had won. That he really has had enough of international football.
In the meantime, throughout the weekend, the Argentine Football Association underwent a certain amount of turmoil of its own. Under contract with the government until 2019 in a project known as “football for all” to televise matches on open access TV, and with an ongoing battle between various factions over the control of a proposed ‘super league’ among other issues, Fifa stepped in to create a “normalising committee” only to find both sides disputing Fifa’s jurisdiction. You’d think Gianni Infantino had enough on his plate, but apparently he found the time to meet with all the main players over the past few months, including one Diego Maradona, and on Friday when their creation of the “normalising committee” was hijacked, Fifa threatened to ‘disaffiliate’ Argentina, which would see the country banned from official international competition both at national and club level.
No one believes that episode had any impact on Messi’s decision, and the player said the AFA’s troubles did not influence his international retirement. But I am reminded of an incident a couple of years ago when a new theatre was opened in Buenos Aires. A huge controversy ensued: opponents of the then government declared that anyone who performed there was tacitly lending support to the regime. The pianist Martha Argerich, an Argentinian genius who has lived abroad her whole adult life, was due to play at the theatre for the opening but as the political slanging match progressed, she bowed out. Her friend Daniel Baremboim urged Argerich to rise above politics, but the artist in her couldn’t go ahead with the performance. Almost as if her art could not happen in proximity to such a toxic environment.
Messi is also an artist. In a way, the lack of patriotism attributed to him is partly a natural interpretation of someone who, like Argerich, has developed his genius abroad and never been involved in local arguments. Messi is the face of the Youth Olympic Games due to be staged in Buenos Aires in 2018, in a deal he made with Macri when the latter was head of the city government, but this is almost an ambassadorial role: a promotion of sport, rather than a political affiliation. Unlike Diego Maradona, who always vociferously took sides in political power struggles, Messi is an incredibly low-profile public figure.
Maradona has said that Messi doesn’t have the personality of a leader. Since then Maradona has backtracked, and is now, God help Messi, suggesting they should join forces to together fight the AFA. Macri has personally called Messi to beg he reconsiders. There are public demonstrations being organised later this week to ask for his forgiveness. Only the Pope hasn’t called him. Yet.
Jorge Valdano wrote in the Mexican paper Record before Sunday’s final that Messi wanted to win in order to be forgiven. After the final, the nation was thrown into introspection as Argentinians debated whether or not they should forgive Messi. Some thought the question was foolish in the first place. “Please forgive us, the country who gave you nothing,” wrote one of my distant cousins on WhatsApp.
If we take in all the factors above, it’s easy to see why football is dominating the political shows in Argentina. A national squad without Messi can expect revenues to fall, and there will have to be heads bowed over contracts, from sponsors to friendly fixtures, all tied into Messi’s presence on the pitch. Without him, and under current governance, Argentina is on the brink of dropping out of world football. (The caption below reads: “Monday, cold, grey, rain, and without Messi what else could happen to us?”)
“Enough of Messi,” continued Agustin Suárez Doreski’s post. “Stay away. Don’t come here any more. Why come here? To weep? To feel indebted to a people that ask more of him than their own politicians?” But Messi, whether out of a sense of duty or love or both towards his homeland, really wanted to deliver. After last year’s Copa final, which Argentina also lost to Chile, there was a telling quote from the then Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli. After the game Sampaoli asked Messi why he had refused the best player award. Messi said he didn’t want to win for himself. He wanted to win for Argentina.
For Argentina. Many Argentinians need Messi to bring a trophy home so they can feel like champions. But many others are simply satisfied with the joy he brings with his game alone. We don’t know how much he still enjoys playing. One thing is clear, this marriage between country and ball, this ongoing unsettled debt which runs both ways … Messi is not enjoying it at all.
This article was written by Marcela Mora y Araujo, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th June 2016 09.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010