When Lionel Messi finally retires, few could argue against him being considered one of the game’s best-ever players.
He loves his job and has been doing it at an elite level for over a decade.
He is recognized by his peers, his rivals and the entire world of soccer.
He largely avoids controversy on the field and rarely speaks to the media, which limits the opportunities for anything other than his play to do the talking.
What he has achieved in his career stems from his prodigious talent but is also a product of his monumental competitiveness.
Lionel Messi didn’t rest on his laurels; he always sought perfection.
His rivalry with fellow icon Cristiano Ronaldo elevated him. He perfected his free kicks and other aspects of his game. And yet, there’s a sense that two Messis exist: there’s the one who conquered soccer with Barcelona and the other that’s forever trying to win with Argentina.
Aside from an Olympic gold medal with his country in 2008, Messi hasn’t won anything with the national team.
This streak of futility is made even more painful by the fact that with Messi leading the way, the Albiceleste have reached three international finals — the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa America the 2016 Copa America Centenario — and have lost all three.
As they chase their first international title since the 1993 Copa America, will this summer see the two Messis finally reconciled as one?
Messi with Argentina: The thorn in his side
Many still wonder why he keeps playing for the national team given his public failures.
The answer is clear: the five Ballons d’Or, four Champions League titles, 10 La Liga titles or the six Copa del Rey wins do not make up for his deep desire to win an important title with his country.
He’s had chances but lost them all. Without a doubt, the most painful one came on July 13, 2014, at the Maracana, against Germany, in which an extra-time goal from Mario Gotze led to a silver medal for Messi and Co.
His four goals carried Argentina to the final yet he didn’t manage a single shot on target over the 120 minutes in the final.
The ultimate issue is that Argentina’s national team does not help his cause. You hear time and again that Argentina’s Messi is not the same as Barcelona’s Messi.
The reasons are obvious: different teammates, less preparation time, constant coaching changes, incompetence within the Argentina FA and a burden too great for a single player to carry.
As captain, Messi is expected to deliver; his teammates look to him in times of need and opponents are happy to commit extra defenders to Messi given how integral he is to their chances.
So far, none of the supporting cast have stepped up to help him out.
Then comes the external pressure. Argentina has a tendency to compare its best players and the debate around Messi vs. Diego Maradona has prevented a lot of national team fans from enjoying the Barca star’s alchemy.
Many want Messi to be like Maradona, who famously did bring the World Cup back to Argentina after winning the 1986 edition in Mexico, and if he doesn’t manage to do the same, he will be heavily criticized. His detractors may be few in number, but they tend to be loud.
And those three final defeats have served to intensify the criticisms of his detractors.
On paper, the 2019 Copa America represents a fresh start. Argentina will take a strong squad to Brazil, one that has undergone a major overhaul, with a new wave of young players set to represent their country.
Of the 23 heading to Brazil, 12 players have fewer than 10 national team appearances, with the side relying on Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria to provide the veteran leadership.
Argentina were woeful at Russia 2018 but in a sense, their miserable round-of-16 exit to eventual winners France helped the FA realize that a significant rebuild needed to begin immediately.
It was a turning point but it also helped the fans realize that in a sporting culture that worships success like that in Argentina, such change cannot happen overnight.
Could their 26-year drought finally end this time around? They lack a defined style of play and will be a work in progress but they have Messi. This summer, it might be enough.
Messi at Barcelona: the star in a system built for him
Johan Cruyff always taught that one of the most important, but difficult things in football was to do the simple things right first time and every time.
It’s a philosophy that must apply to anyone who wants to explain the brilliance, the power and the success of Messi’s life at Barça.
He’s a phenomenon, yes. Arguably the greatest footballer but certainly in that elite pantheon. But that alone doesn’t fulfil Cruyff’s criterion about sticking to the simple, necessary things.
To understand Messi domestically, particularly in comparison with his career with Argentina, you need to look around him.
It doesn’t detract from Messi’s all-time greatness to point out that, across his Blaugrana career, he’s had the benefit of three 24-karat geniuses as mentors and tormentors: Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Pep Guardiola. And yes: “genius” is the correct adjective for all three.
We also need to add that throughout Messi’s life in the Barcelona first team, there has been a flood of guys who, though not all-time “genius,” still belong to the exclusive club of footballers with true greatness in their talent, technique, competitiveness, intelligence and athleticism.
This cast of “best supporting actors” includes Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Thierry Henry, David Villa, Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol.
It’s also notable that early in Messi’s career, the club moved out guys like Ronaldinho and Deco who might have hampered his development because of their penchant for nightlife.
Take into account the twin concepts his club leaned on: it was vital to re-educate young Messi on sleep, general diet and physical recuperation.
Equally, it was fundamentally important to keep him happy by constantly renewing his contract to the point, now, where his basic gross earnings will be over €30m per year.
All of that has immense significance but also, just think about the fact that for almost the entirety of Messi’s lifespan at FC Barcelona, he’s been surrounded by fellow “addicts” hooked on winning, on the club’s particular brand of football intelligence, the hard work required to hone their competitiveness, the appeal of rising to the occasion or fighting for every loose ball.
Why Ronaldo and Messi cause such a divide among fans
Messi has been fortunate that the common corrosions in a dressing room — frustration, ego, laziness — have been ultra-rare at Barcelona.
He’s barely glimpsed that kind of atmosphere: it happened briefly in 2007-08 and momentarily in 2013-14.
In those brief, fallow times when something around him was missing, when the hunger seemed sated and the team’s standards dropped, not only was the experience exceptionally fleeting, but it was marginal: Barcelona only lost the Champions League semifinal by a goal in 2008, then lost both the Copa del Rey final (to Real Madrid) and La Liga (to Atletico Madrid) on the last day of the season in 2014.
Failure? Failure is defined differently on Planet Messi.
If it seems facile to point out that surrounding a genius with constant excellence, hunger, competitiveness and ambition is a recipe to explain Messi’s phenomenal results, think again. Too few who assess him see this, understand this, describe this or award sufficient significance to this.
For generations, people have been fixated by the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Just think of the atomic sporting power released when nature and nurture are equally superb and equally aligned? That part is immensely rare.
Messi has been paid unbelievably well at Barcelona, but that’s nowhere near the main point. What’s convinced him to stay has been the feeling that he’s Primus Inter Pares: not “first among equals” but the greatest among greats.
There’s also the element of kinship. In Luis Suarez, Messi has found not only a truly close friend, someone with whom he can share both family and professional time as if they were brothers, but he’s found his perfect strike partner. Of all the attackers Messi has played with over the years, he and Suarez fit like hand in glove.
Had the prime of Xavi, Iniesta, Guardiola and Suarez intertwined, I’ll wager Barcelona would have won a couple more trebles. Had Suarez been born in Argentina, Messi would have had three or four international trophies to his name with Los Albicelestealready. It’s that simple.