With the Copa America Centenario tournament in the books, the news has not focused on Chile’s repeat victory against Argentina, but rather the announced retirement of Lionel Messi from international play. Much has been reported in the news about this, but there’s been a surprising amount of negativity and even vitriol aimed at Messi. While there are never shortages of opinion regarding a subject such as this, this was written to weigh in on his decision and to try to offer some factors that might have come into play.
Messi turned 29 years old last week, and had been playing football in Argentina when he was four until he moved to Spain. He has played in the Barcelona system since 2003, playing a total of 380 matches. He’s also played in 106 Champions League and 55 Copa Del Rey matches. Additionally, he has played 94 games for his native Argentina, as well as an untold number of matches he’s fronted for UNICEF and as a part of his own charity foundation.
In each of his competitive matches, there are two absolutes. The first is that Messi is almost never substituted out of a game, so he plays the entire 90+ minutes. The second is that Messi is always among the most fouled player in his matches, and each foul increases the wear and tear on his aging body. After so many years of play, his body is naturally wearing out and he would want to minimize any further injuries if at all possible.
Messi’s “day job” at Barcelona pays him about $30 million/year, and he has commercial endorsements that are closely tied to his performance on the pitch. Given that a footballer’s career can end at any time, a player such as Messi would want to play at a high (and injury-free) level for as long as possible in order to maximize his earnings, as most of us would.
Many have pointed out that Messi’s national team has never won the “big one”, and without a World Cup or Copa America trophy, Messi’s legacy will never be complete. While there will always be some fans who believe that, it is critical to remember that soccer is truly a team game. In the case of his home country, Argentina wins or loses as a team. In this Copa America, for example, he came back from an injury in the second game and energized a lifeless Argentinian squad with three goals as a second-half substitute. Also worth mentioning is that if teammate Gonzalo Higuain puts the ball in the net in any one of his three goal-scoring opportunities, perhaps Messi retires with his “legacy” intact.
And the person most often bringing up this “legacy” issue? None other than Argentinian Diego Maradona, the man who in 1986 made scoring winning goals using one’s hands an acceptable part of the game, while giving God an assist. And he was able to keep his motor running on and off the pitch thanks to the cocaine he ingested. All told, Messi has scored 464 goals as a member of Barcelona along with 71 goals while playing for Argentina. This does not take into account the massive number of assists he has. That will be his legacy and how Lionel Messi should be judged by the football community.
One last item that would factor into Messi’s retirement decision is the state of affairs of the Argentina Football Administration (AFA). After a number of years of mismanagement and ineptitude, FIFA has put the crisis-torn AFA under administration, sacking Luis Segura and replacing him with a committee of lawyers and accountants. Ironic that FIFA has accused the AFA of corruption. While pocketing some of the funds set aside for the players, they have reserved second-rate hotels while playing for their country and often didn’t book flights on time, resulting in less training time while traveling to World Cup qualifiers.
It is considered likely that other Argentinian players will be retiring from national team play. Names mentioned include Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega and Lucas Biglia. All of these players are contributors to the Argentine squad yet none of their legacies will be questioned upon retirement.
If Lionel Messi does follow through and retires from the national team, let’s appreciate and applaud the contributions he’s made to his country over the years and look forward to seeing more of the same at Barcelona. Players like Lionel Messi come around once in a generation, and watching the player Ray Hudson calls the “Little Maestro” is truly a privilege.