Lionel Messi has nothing to prove for FC Barcelona. The forward, once ridiculed for his short stature by British pundits before destroying Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final, has won every club trophy possible. He has won eight La Liga titles, four Copa del Rey trophies, six Spanish Super Cups, four Champions League trophies, three UEFA Super Cups and three FIFA Club World Cups.
The Argentine has had an illustrious career already, and he is only 29-years old. Yet, the one thing that has been unobtainable for Messi, has been an international trophy. Countless books have been written about him, including The Flea - The amazing story of Leo Messi that became a best seller almost instantly.
The summer of 2016 was to mark Messi’s first triumph at the international level, as Argentina faced off against old rivals Chile in the Copa America. What transpired wasn’t the storybook ending he or any of Argentina’s faithful had in mind.
After destroying the USA in the semifinal 4-0, Messi was corralled and prevented from having the same kind of influence he had had in previous games. Nil-nil after 90 minutes, neither team could find the breakthrough in extra-time. For the second consecutive Copa America, the final between Chile and Argentina would be decided by penalties.
Unlike in 2015, Messi missed the first of Argentina’s spot kicks, although Chile’s Arturo Vidal would miss, too. Yet once again, it was the Chileans who held their nerves, winning the penalty shootout 4-2.
For Messi, it marked his third Copa America final loss. The 2007 edition had seen Brazil dismantle the young Messi’s Argentina, while both 2015 and 2016 saw the Argentines lose on penalties. What resulted in July was Messi’s immediate retirement from the international game. Long criticized for his play at Barcelona compared to that at Argentina, Messi had decided to call it quits after his third Copa American final loss. There was also the stinging loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. How could Messi be the best in the world, yet never win an international prize to prove it?
To add insult to injury, Cristiano Ronaldo nearly single handily led Portugal to its first ever international trophy weeks later. The Real Madrid man may have come off injured in the final, but without his goals, assists and leadership in the lead up, Portugal would have gone home after the group stage.
So why has Messi never won an international trophy?
There are theories and speculation from pundits and experts down to casual soccer fans on why Messi has never won an international trophy. The most widely accepted belief among fans and pundits, is that Messi just fits into Barcelona’s system of play far better than that of Argentina’s. Messi has the fortune of playing with world-class players at Camp Nou, but it is the way in which the team is set out tactically that allows him to excel like he does. The tikka-takka style Barcelona made famous and the club’s legendary 4-3-3 formation, was taught to Messi from a young age and it is something he is comfortable operating in.
Despite playing for Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys at the age of six, Messi and his family moved to Spain when he was just entering his teens. During his most formative years tactically, Messi learned alongside the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique.
The trio, along with the rest of their class at Barcelona’s La Masia were known as the Baby Dream Team, the most successful of Barcelona’s youth teams to that point.
To this day, Messi’s role at Barcelona is the same – or very similar – to that he has played since arriving at the club. He has grown up there, and spent more time in Barcelona than Argentina, where fans have declared him to be far more Spanish than Argentine.
Messi has admitted he is extremely frustrated with his international record. How could he win everything with Barcelona and fail with Argentina?
What about Diego Maradona?
For years, the comparisons have come and modern fans have claimed Messi as the greatest to ever play. Yet, what Messi could not do, Diego Maradona did in 1986. A specific generation will always claim Maradona as the best to ever play, and not Messi. That is the nature of sports, however, comparing the past with the present and so forth. It is undeniable what Maradona was able to do at both club and international level, and arguably more amazing than Messi’s run with Barcelona.
Maradona may have only won two Serie A titles while playing for Napoli in the late-1980s, but it was what he did for the club and city that usurps Messi’s record. Upon arriving at Napoli in 1984, the club had just avoided relegation the season prior. Two Coppa Italia trophies were all the team had to its name when Maradona arrived, yet by the time he left, Napoli had secured five major cups. He became a God in the city of Naples, to this day shrines are still dedicated to him, and he lifted a poverty and mafia plagued southern city in Italy to the same heights as the richer northern Italian clubs.
Without Messi at Barcelona, it is realistic to think that the club would still have won trophies. However, without Maradona, Napoli would still be without a Serie A title.
The pressure of the Maradona comparisons, no matter how many La Liga or Champions League trophies Messi wins, will always be there. Perhaps those constant comparisons are why Messi failed to reach international glory.
Maradona’s style of play made Napoli great, and at the time, Argentina at the international level. In 2016, it is Barcelona’s style that has made Messi great, and Argentina unable to win a second World Cup.
Why retire now?
Why would Messi retired now, at his peak, and leave fans devoid of seeing one of the greatest soccer players at the next World Cup? The answers are not easy. However, the best answer could be the pressure Messi faced during the summer of 2016 broke him. The Ballon d’Or winner not only lost out on the Copa America in June, but he faced tax fraud allegations back in Spain.
With an impending decision came just weeks after Argentina’s Copa America loss, perhaps the weight of both soccer and legal problems became too much for the superstar. Messi was under scrutiny by many for his defrauding of the Spanish tax system of over $4 million between 2007 and 2009. Although Messi’s father Jorge Horacio Messi was considered to be in charge of the Barcelona forward’s money, both were under the microscope. When Messi walked off the pitch on June 26th in East Rutherford, New Jersey, there was a very real possibility of a prison sentence once a verdict was rendered back in Catalonia.
In the end, Messi was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Although he was given a 21-month jail sentence, under Spanish law, sentences under two years can be served as probation. Messi and his father will both pay large fines, yet prison and a tarnished image were both avoided.
It was the court’s decision that most likely weighed heavily on Messi’s mind at the end of the Copa America final. It was most likely the final straw that convinced the forward to retire from international soccer.
What’s next for Messi?
In July of 2016, following Messi’s international retirement and 11 days after the court verdict in his tax fraud case, FC Barcelona agreed a new contract with the star. Actually, the deal was agreed with Messi Sr., who was representing Lionel.
With his contract up in 2018 and the threat of the English Premier League signing him thanks to the massive television contract that goes into effect in the fall of 2016, Barcelona was desperate to wrap up its star man. The club is in need of re-signing several of its old guard, though the kind of spending that Barcelona has done in recent years has been called irresponsible and unsustainable.
Messi will most likely return and commit to a long-term deal, keeping the forward with the club to see out his days. Other than playing in another country, there is nothing for Messi to achieve outside of international soccer.
Lionel Messi’s Barcelona Record
Many fans around the world will be unaware or unconcerned over Messi’s legal troubles of 2016. To them, the FIFA generation, Messi is the greatest soccer player to ever play the game. Of course there is Cristian Ronaldo, too. However, fans have grown attached to Messi rather than the Portuguese player over the years. Perhaps it is Messi’s down to earth look, his enjoyment of playing videogames or the fact that he doesn’t look like a superstar like Ronaldo, there is something that fans are attracted to.
Messi’s trophy cabinet is littered with individual awards from FIFA World Player of the Year trophies to five FIFA Ballon d’Or awards. Although it looks like 2016 will once again be Ronaldo’s year to lift the Ballon d’Or after winning the Champions League and European Championship in the space of two months, Messi has every chance at getting it back with a strong 2016-17.
The curse of Lionel Messi at the international level has deprived many fans of seeing the greatest of the modern era win on the biggest stage. Surely, there is one last chapter in the story of Messi’s Argentina. One last chapter that will see the hero rise again and finally claim victory.
By Drew Farmer, author of Soccer Travels.