A few short weeks ago, the centenary edition of the Copa America was being universally derided, and labelled for what it was: a soulless, corporate cash grab. The play was uninspiring, the star names and teams were faltering, barely capturing any attention inside America, let alone outside of the two participating continents.
Attendances were embarrassingly low and with the negative press coverage fast becoming a theme, the world was ready to cut its losses. That was, until Lionel Messi announced his arrival in grand fashion.
His return from a troublesome back injury breathed new life into the competition. Trademark free-kicks were duly dispatched, defenses were carved apart with passes displaying surgical precision and it seemed like every moment of Messi magic promptly went viral. Once again this diminutive forward from Rosario had captivated the world and in doing so, he single-handedly transformed this anniversary edition of the Copa America into a spectacle.
We were being treated to Lionel Messi at his very best; in his four appearances leading up to the final, Leo had scored five and assisted another four in just 253 minutes of gametime. That’s an average of over three goals a game that originated from his left boot, or if you prefer, one every 28 minutes of action. The response?
Why can’t he play like that all the time?
Well, because the way that he was playing was already better than anyone who had ever played the game. There’s no acknowledgement that what Messi was achieving was completely unprecedented; once the final came and went without a winner’s medal, Messi knew that the knives were out.
This constant need to belittle Messi for his supposed shortcomings on the international stage merely shows humanity at its lowest ebb; here we have a vocal majority glibly turning a blind eye to genius, in what: an asinine bid to make their own failings more bearable?
For years, Messi gave his all for his country. He travelled across the globe; he endured the criticism from his own supporters, coupled with the heartbreak of defeat, and still he kept coming back for more in a quest for glory.
"All would be forgiven with one trophy" is what they said; "a chance to secure his legacy" was the headline echoed around the world headed into Sunday’s final, a reductive preview of what most clearly should not be a career-defining game for the greatest player of this, and perhaps every other generation.
Let’s forget that for the third year in succession, Messi had helped his country reach a major final, and for the third year in succession, the final was decided after the end of regulation play. Deprived of context, the world had somehow derived the most basic conclusion from all three finals: Argentina had ended up on the losing side, and so each of the three failures landed squarely at Lionel Messi’s feet.
As mercurial as Messi has been for Barcelona, it only lent credence to the belief that he was deemed to lack that certain je ne sais quoi on the international scene that the likes of Pele and Maradona had in spades. If he can produce like that for Barcelona, then why can’t he play like that all the time?
Why can’t he play like that in a final for Argentina?
Modern fandom is replete with this kind of rhetorical nonsense; context is readily discarded for convenience to suit whichever biased discourse is the flavour of the day. Why is it that the same question was never asked of dear old Diego? The popular view is that Maradona won the 1986 World Cup without a capable supporting cast, but the truth is that his legacy was cemented simply because his teammates converted their chances.
Without Jose Luis Brown, Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga, what would history say about Diego Maradona? And so, by the same token what would history say about Lionel Messi without Gonzalo Higuain?
In this post-Brexit, Donald Trump-nominating world, it’s no surprise that the general population continues to do itself, and all future generations a disservice if the response to Messi’s unprecedented greatness was heightened demand. Faced with appeasing a public that, on reflection, should have realised it was asking for the impossible...no wonder that Messi finally decided that enough was enough.
Yes, we have been robbed of his final act on the international scene, but we have no one to blame but ourselves.