"Messi lacks personality." Maradona once said.
The events of the last two weeks did little to dispel that. Lionel Messi gave me the impression of a man on a mission to get rest, skip some matches and focus on what is important – getting trophies where he can, with his club.
Let me explain. We’ve grown accustomed to the image of six, seven or eight Barcelona players surrounding the referee before and after every potential decision. The Catalan ostrich act that would like you to believe it is all justified when it is just a tactic to get favourable decisions most of the time.
The tactic has worked wonders for them as their Nou Camp match against PSG in the Champions League serves to prove my point. It’s a shame because they have some of the best players in the world, and the childish complaining and incessant moaning to referees serves to hold back the respect and admiration of the neutrals they should get for their football skills. But perhaps they don’t care. Perhaps they only care about winning.
To the crux of my point: have they, and more importantly has Lionel Messi, ventured too far into ‘winning at all cost’ territory that they’ve stopped caring about football?
When Messi stood inside the penalty area near the dying stages of the match against Valencia in La Liga last week, he was practicing a standard tactic - wasting time. But there was something else. His body language betrayed a bigger plan. His his stare switching from the goalkeeper to the referee. Instead of the ‘Mother Theresa’ act players usually pull when they are cheating, he looked more like ‘come at me, bro’. The transparency of his daring act of time wasting provoked the referee to book him.
Coincidences seldom make sense. This did. It was his fifth cumulative yellow card earning him an automatic one-match suspension that would force him to miss the game against Granada – a club on the fringe of the Spanish top division. Time-wasting and yellow card nullification: two birds with one stone.
The incident might have easily been dismissed as an honest player mistake if it was not the strange occurrence of Messi’s four-match suspension from international football for abusing the referee against Chile merely a week later. With that, a rotten egg has crept into the whole story.
The ban will keep him from international football until October. How comfortable is that for Barcelona – who have important games coming in the La Liga and the Champions League. How much does Messi need a break really? Or is he having one of those unlucky periods which he can later brush off? (like the ‘Oh sorry Honorable, I didn’t know I was keeping millions of unpaid tax money in my bank account’).
The answers to those questions are entering speculative ground unwillingly and that risks a punch on the chin, but, hey, someone’s got to fight, right?
Being the prolific goal-scorer without whom Argentina will surely suffer, Messi has scored an own goal with this one. Has he let the grandiosity of being the best footballer in the world go to his head? Much like Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer for their corruption scandals and Johan Cruyff for his grandiose belief there is only one type of football – his. Even if he has, Messi’s still lacks one thing those football legends don’t – success with his national side.
If all of it was intentional, then Messi has lost ground on keeping his status as the greatest of all time come his retirement. He’s not running Barcelona or Argentina, is he? He’s just a footballer who reserves his right to moan and whine about decisions going against him at the expense of receiving punishment. Now to use the system to his advantage, and worse to use it to take a break from international football is his downfall.
For football remembers its true legends for the way they played for both club and country, the things they gave back to the game, on top of the success they’ve had. Messi’s success with Barcelona in unprecedented, no doubt about that, but his Argentina story has been filled with disappointment and lack of backbone on his behalf. Look no further for contrast than Alexis Sanchez whose incessant pushing to win things took him to two consecutive Copa Americas.
Messi just does not want to lead his countrymen. Or perhaps he’s not able to or doesn’t care. In the meantime, his one-match suspension for Barcelona hints of his desire to win with the club, maybe because of the class that surrounds him there or because of the desire of the whole Barca team to play for Messi.
Maradona is dead right here. Messi’s attempts to fit into his tag of ‘world’s greatest’ will maybe come to be seen as ‘that guy the whole Barcelona team played for, the whiny guy who fought when he was close to victory and exited at the slightest possibility of defeat.’
In that regard, Messi will never reach the respect Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paolo Maldini and Ronaldinho deserved and received.