Lionel Messi opened up the opportunity for failure by going all-in before Barcelona’s season even started. Prior to a preseason match against Boca Juniors last summer, Messi referenced the disappointment of their quarterfinal collapse in Europe against Roma and promised the Camp Nou crowd to do everything to “bring that beautiful trophy” back to Barcelona. Eight months later, taking a 3-0 lead to Anfield in the Champions League semifinal, Barcelona gave up four goals to Liverpool that included a match-winner in which the entire defense stopped paying attention during a decisive corner kick. Albert Einstein gave his definition of insanity, but a team continually placing their season’s hope on winning the Champions League is its own form of sporting madness. Messi described getting knocked out against Liverpool as a tragedy.
Cruelly, as only soccer could write it, a historic achievement of Messi’s career coincided with the moment when Barcelona’s momentum took a downward turn: Messi’s free kick that gave Barcelona their 3-0 lead against Liverpool was the 600th goal of his career. Leading up to that goal, there were debates of whether this was actually the best season of Messi’s career. Not in terms of numbers, as he’s scored more goals in other seasons, and at age 32, saves his impossible dribbling sequences for specific moments. But in an overall sense of match control and understanding, and the totality of his skills and experience combined. Barcelona were chasing a quadruple at the time. He found peace and stability, as exemplified by his support for renewing Ernesto Valverde’s contract.
Sentiment turned quickly against Valverde’s peacetime approach, with Messi deflecting blame from his manager following the Liverpool loss. Yet that failure was followed by another in the Copa del Rey Final against Valencia, as Barcelona would win “just” two trophies on the season. Messi showcased an indignant spirit shaped by difficult losses in important matches with Argentina and Barcelona. His shell was hardened by disappointment. In a cruel feedback loop, and in the face of a much-needed overhaul of two aging squads, he said that losing with Argentina and Barcelona only made him want to fight harder for both sides in the future. He implored supporters to stand united behind squad, especially for Valverde and Coutinho.
That vocalness represented a new approach from the figure whose silence and insularity was part of his genius image. The usually reserved Messi began to speak out to the media in ways we’ve previously never seen, starting with the preseason address to the home crowd. Perhaps his newfound theatrics were a product of a changing era. This was his first season as club captain, inheriting the role from Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta before him. Now it was his role to not only perform on the field, but shape the narratives of the club off it. He criticized the Camp Nou for whistling Coutinho. He said he finished last season more tired and mentally frustrated than any other of his career. This increased vocality is perhaps the first sign of Messi coming to terms with his legacy, particularly in his acceptance of a closing window with Argentina.
It was an appropriate time for Messi to defend himself, especially against criticism of his international play. Diego Simeone suggested that Ronaldo was a better fit on a team of average players, whereas Messi was best on a side focused on playing (though his suggestion also inferred that Argentina was full of mediocre players). Maradona said that though he preferred Messi, he also wished that Ronaldo were Argentine. This is the Messi paradox, of his genius being so great that the focus and attention is always focused on him to the detriment of the entire side. Lucas Biglia spoke of Messi’s gravity, saying that Argentina always wants to give him the ball, to let him sort out play at the expense of the larger team. He added that Argentina needed to learn not to depend on him to solve a match. Though as Simeone implied, Messi never had a balanced Argentina side as evidenced by an argument of whether Giovani Lo Celso was the player Messi was waiting for in the national team all this time.
“I want to retire having won something with Argentina,” explained Messi after being asked when he would leave the national team for good. His devotion in the face of obvious deficiencies evokes a combination of a soccer Sisyphus and a Godot-esque of wait for a title that will seemingly never come. Marca ranked what Messi has left to accomplish in this career, ranging from winning another Champions League, to, of course, winning something with Argentina. The conversations have changed to how titles, or a lack thereof, will affect his legacy. How else can Messi surprise us when we already understand his place in the sport, all while he still has years remaining at a level beyond his peers?
“The officiating was crazy,” continued Messi following Argentina’s loss to Brazil in the Copa America semifinal, accusing the referee of having a pro-Brazil bias during the match. He was particularly aggrieved during a sequence that lead up to Brazil’s second goal in which Sergio Aguero appeared to have gotten tripped as he ran into Brazil’s box.
Messi remained optimistic regardless, saying afterwards that the loss to Brazil represented their best match of the tournament (though critics would argue that there wasn’t a high bar to clear for that description). The weight of this loss was dampened by the fact that there will be another Copa America next summer, co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia. With Messi turning 33 and the World Cup another two years away, that tournament ostensibly represents his last opportunity to win something at the international level.
Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel says that when she has trouble sleeping, she watches Messi highlights on a loop. She explains that the clips don’t make her any sleepier, but instead give her peace and faith. There is something inherently singular in Messi that allows his inspiration to reach beyond soccer, where a filmmaker creating idiosyncratic stories of a leader exiled to a foreign country, of stories of swimming pools and ghosts, goes to find reason. There’s no separation between the Messi who plays as a false nine in a 4-3-3 formation and the figure that inspired other geniuses in different fields. The great tactical shortcoming is that Messi’s sides rely upon him too much. But consider the lack of alternatives for those sides once he’s retired, and the existential void for supporters and observers when there’s no more new moments to build dreams upon.