The unbearable weight of a nation broke Argentina talisman Lionel Messi
Weight is a hell of a thing. Claudio Bravo no doubt felt the weight of the Copa América trophy as he hoisted it aloft last night following Chile‘s 4-2 win on penalties against Argentina, forcing Lionel Messi to feel the weight of defeat.
Weight is a hell of a thing, because ultimately it is determined by gravity. You weigh more on Earth than you do on the Moon, for instance. Maybe that explains a lot about Messi. When dressed in Blaugrana, the greatest player in the world often moves around the field as though he was from outer space; unbothered by gravity or defenders or even the laws of physics. But in Albiceleste, he wasn’t the same. He was slower, heavier.
It’s as if the Barcelona kit is a space suit, or the cloth he was wrapped in when sent to Earth to be the best of us. Strange, because the Albiceleste of his native Argentina is much closer to his heart – he is almost painfully Argentine – but it hung so much heavier on his shoulders. It weighed him down, each summer defeat broke his heart that little bit more, which is why he decided to retire from international football following yesterday’s loss.
Lionel Messi: “Argentina is over for me. That’s 4 finals [I've lost], it's not for me. I think it's a made decision" pic.twitter.com/xX3euRa5ys
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 27, 2016
Failure after failure at the senior international level eventually drowned him. In 2010 he was a masterful playmaker in a broken side, so too in 2011. In 2014 he watched his illustrious team-mates fail him one by one as he dragged his team to the final. The exact same thing happened in 2015 and 2016, both tournaments ending in defeat to the same foe in the same way.
Well, almost the same way. In 2015 during the shootout loss to Chile, Messi was the only Argentine to score. The perfect metaphor for how he could only carry his team-mates so far. But in 2016 during the shootout loss to Chile, Messi missed. The weight of carrying his team-mates had now sunk him into the mud beneath his feet.
There was a scene in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones season six where Jon Snow, leading an army into a glorious battle, was almost crushed beneath them. They trampled all over the man they had sworn to fight for, almost killing him. They didn’t mean to, they didn’t even realise what they were doing. But they did it all the same.
After the final, that moment must feel acutely familiar to Messi. One imagines that he feels flush when seeing it, feeling his stomach tie itself in knots, almost as though the show-makers had crafted that scene specifically for him, to remind him of his greatest failure. Of his inability to carry the weight of a nation.
Argentina have been to three finals in three years, and it has been Messi who has dragged them there. Javier Mascherano and various defenders – Ezequiel Garay and Nicolas Otamendi in particular – have been able deputies, providing a solid defensive platform, but in attack Messi has to do nearly all the heavy lifting.
Even when it seems like his team-mates are helping out, much as it did in 2015 and 2016, come the final it will once again all be on Messi to make the dysfunctional function, to overcome a far more organised and determined team with no help at all.
If Messi can’t carry the weight of his country, his attacking team-mates can’t carry the weight of their own heads. This season Gonzalo Higuain scored more goals in Serie A than any man since 1950, but when it came to playing for Argentina he once again crumbled like centuries-old stonework exposed to fresh air.
If this is the third final in three years that Messi has dragged Argentina to, then it is also the third final in three years where Higuain has had a clean one on one chance and not even managed to hit the target. Sergio Aguero, usually so lethal for Manchester City, turned into a timid puppy for Argentina. Angel Di Maria got hurt, again. Because as the only player whose ever shown as much fortitude as Messi, of course he always gets hurt.
So once more Messi stood alone. Carrying the weight of the side on his shoulders. Carrying his cowardly manager Tata Martino, who yet again refused to make attacking changes. Carrying his national federation who are so corrupt that Fifa has stepped in to help them clean up their act – no, seriously. Carrying the expectations of fans who refuse to appreciate him and constantly compare him to two weeks of another man’s life from 30 years ago.
Messi had carried them all so far for so long, in the end even he succumbed to their weight. He could take no more, walk no further. He could no long support them as they failed to support him, hell, he could no longer support himself. He blazed his penalty over the bar. They had finally dragged him down to their level. He retired from international football. They had finally broken the unbreakable.
In the life of every person, there has to be balance. Things cannot be all good all the time, we cannot get everything we want. From an ontological standpoint, if we did not suffer, if we did not know despair, could we even know joy? Would it taste as sweet? Messi’s club career is the greatest joy one could have, a ceaseless song of supreme success.
To balance out such unparalleled excellence takes enormous weight, the most tortuous suffering, and that is what Messi underwent with Argentina. It’s why he has walked away at just 29 years of age.
With Argentina it wasn’t enough to fail, Messi had to shoulder impossible burdens – physical, mental and emotional – and despite them, get within inches of the light, he had to feel his fingertips tracing the edge of the trophy before being pulled back into the darkness by the unbearable weight of an entire nation.