Picture Courtesy: edition.cnn.com
Sunday, June 26, 2016, was finally supposed to be the day that Argentina put 3 years of bad luck behind them and finally win a major tournament. With the living phenomenon Lionel Messi captaining his Argentina side to a 3rd major tournament final in a row, Argentina were considered overwhelming favorites to beat Chile, the same side that beat them 2 years ago, and win the Copa America 2016.
120 minutes and 10 penalties later that optimistic belief turned into that familiar feeling of frustration and utter dismay. Argentina had stumbled at the last hurdle once again - for the 3rd time in 3 years. For a country obsessed with football, the heartbreak of losing another final was clear for the world to see. However, that feeling of frustration quickly turned into shock and despair as after the match, one of the best players in our generation if not THE best, Lionel Messi announced that he was retiring from international football as the pain of 3 cup final losses in a row was too much for him to bear.
For the first time in the country's history, Argentina is on the brink of a national crisis and for the first time, it isn't due to economic instability.
Great players disappearing in a major game is not something new. It happens all the time. Imagine the hopes and dreams of the entire nation resting on your shoulders. We'd probably struggle to keep a clear head. However, when the nation's prodigal son, the player who has broken every record he has come face to face with, who has enjoyed unparalleled success at club level football, goes missing in every big game, fans and teammates alike have been left holding their heads. There were 21 other players on the pitch on Sunday, and yet all eyes were on him. Yet, he failed to deliver yet again.
Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer in the country's history, once said that Messi lacked that willpower and character to be a true leader. Maybe he was half right. Messi has all the qualities that Maradona had in his prime. We know he is a match winner, but leaders should be prepared to win at any cost and by any means necessary (alas Hand of God by Maradonna) and it's safe to say that's where those two are so different.
Many football fanatics and journalists have argued that every single player who started the match on Sunday had to take equal responsibility for the loss. However, as is the case with every top player, people will inevitably point the finger towards Messi for that poor performance. Messi's staggering success with his club Barcelona is now held up against him when he dons the blue-and-white jersey. We are told he is successful only in Europe because he plays alongside a star cast at Barcelona. Is it so easy to forget all the games he has won single-handedly for club and country, just because he hasn't made the difference in an international final, does he deserve this level of criticism?
The answer is simple. No, he doesn't. Argentina is no pub team. They have other class players in Aguero, Higuain, Di Maria e.t.c. They essentially swept aside every team that they faced before reaching the final. When it comes to the final, talent and class goes out of the window. What matters is players with a strong mentality who are willing to dig deep, get dirty and win at any cost. Chile played their hearts out. They wanted it that little bit more. They strived for it that little bit more and they got their rewards in the end.
According to varying reports, the Obelisco monument in Buenos Aires—where Argentina fans often congregate to celebrate success—has been named as the venue for a rally with over 100,000 people reportedly set to march in the center of Buenos Aires to persuade him to reverse his decision. That alone signifies how much his fans adore him despite all their despair. That the thought of Messi retiring is more desolate than their nation losing a tournament final is the perfect tribute to the living legend.
Messi might return to play for Argentina after getting over the pain and heartbreak of this defeat, or he might keep true to his word and quit for real. One thing is for certain, this is not how the 'Greats' go, not before hitting the 30-year mark. This is not the boy who defied all odds to win countless trophies and win the hearts of millions of fans all over the world. Even if he does quit or decides to take a break for a few years, it is almost certain that his place in the team will remain untouched when he comes back. That is how special he is. That is why we, as a footballing community are so very lucky to witness his magic in action. We will struggle to see another player like him in our lifetime.