'Destroyed' Leo Messi May Never Have The Perfect Career, But No-One Does

In the immediate aftermath of Argentina’s defeat to Chile, Leo Messi didn’t speak, but his teammate Ezequiel Lavezzi revealed why. The picture the Paris Saint-Germain forward painted was particularly stark.

“He is destroyed,” Lavezzi told media. “Leo is one who feels these frustrations most, because he is the best and all eyes are on him.”

Unlike with last year’s World Cup, however, Messi couldn’t this time bring himself to cast his own eyes towards the Copa America. It was evidently too painful, as if he was well aware of the significance of this defeat beyond the trophy itself.

FBL-COPAM2015-ARG-CHI : News Photo

Given that Messi will be 31 by the time of the next World Cup final, and that next year’s centenary Copa America is not yet confirmed to go ahead, the likelihood is rising that the Argentine great will not get that international trophy for his country he so craves.

That has led to much understandable criticism, but also some questioning that has bordered on the ludicrous.

Make no mistake - because Messi himself made enough mistakes in Santiago on Saturday - the Argentine captain deserves some criticism for his display, but that criticism should not lead to some of the hysterically definitive revisionism the defeat has given rise to.

Of course, part of the reason that Messi must face this kind of thing is because he has made acts of genius so routine, to the point they are unrealistically expected virtually every game.

This Copa America final was way below his regular level of performance. It wasn’t just that Jorge Sampaoli’s exceptional gameplan meant Chile were so successful in crowding him out, with players like Matias Fernandez eventually tackling him with surprising ease. It was also that Messi allowed it to affect his own game and mood in the way he usually doesn’t.

FBL-COPAM2015-ARG-CHI : News Photo

There was no clearer sign than the moment in the second half when, expecting to be awarded a free-kick for another niggly Chilean challenge, Messi just picked the ball up in petulance. The referee took it off him, and immediately awarded a free-kick the other way for handball.

That was in the centre of the pitch, and was one of the few times Messi was central to play, as Argentina’s own approach so bizarrely bypassed him.

Yet, on the two occasions in a frustrating second half when he finally got on the ball in such positions, he still provided the best Argentine moves of the match.

For the first, his volleyed through ball was rendered irrelevant because the offside Lavezzi decided to go for the pass rather than leave it for Gonzalo Higuain. For the second, Lavezzi couldn’t offer the cross to match Messi’s initial run to release him, and Higuain’s subsequent miss was still worse.

There is a significance here almost as symbolic as the fact Messi was the only Argentine to score a penalty.

If Higuain takes one of his two big chances in either last year’s World Cup final or Saturday night’s match, the Barcelona playmaker would have a personal medal collection from the club and international game incomparable among the elite. No one - not Pele, not Diego Maradona, not Alfredo Di Stefano, not Johan Cruyff - would have enjoyed that breadth of confirmed brilliance. They generally either dominate the club scene or the international, not really both. That is what Messi would have done.

FBL-COPAM2015-ARG-CHI : News Photo

This is not to say that his final display was deserving of a medal, but it does indicate that something of a reassessment is required when it comes to this grand debate regarding his endless comparison to the rest of the elite. No matter how good the player, their performances only go so far, and they will never be relentless.

For all those arguing that Messi needs to win an international medal like Pele, or that Maradona would have decided some of these games, it is a rationale curiously not applied to the following:

Pele barely won a trophy of true merit after 1965 other than his swan-song of the 1970 World Cup, which is a remarkably long time to go for a player in his peak at the best team in the world, while insulated in one of the best-backed clubs in the world at Santos.

Maradona had an awfully similar performance to Messi’s World Cup final in the 1990 showpiece, and never got close to a Copa America, nor a European Cup. The two league titles at Napoli are obviously exceptional achievements given that they were the first the club won, but that club was suddenly financially super-charged in the way Manchester City were around 2010, and Maradona atrociously wasted what should have been a much more prosperous situation at Barcelona.

No-one talks about the way his disruptive return to the Argentina team in 1993 was a principal reason for their 5-0 battering at the feet of Colombia in a World Cup qualifier, to the point they had to go through a play-off. 

Argentina vs West Germany : News Photo

Even Maradona’s grand achievement, the 1986 World Cup, was still ultimately dependent on a vastly inferior teammate making the best of his brilliance in the way Messi’s didn’t. Whereas Jorge Burruchaga scored Maradona’s pass in what was otherwise a quiet individual performance, however, Lavezzi squandered Messi’s.

None of this is to try and diminish the greatness of either of these players, but it is to point out the double standards in how they are judged. The fact that only their most magnificent moments endure in the memory means they are afforded an aura of excellence they only occasionally had in reality. By contrast, the proliferation of football media ensures every Messi minute is scrutinised in a way Maradona and Pele never were, and a routine look back at some of their matches will reveal a lot of quiet moments, a few bad games, and the occasional moment of haplessness - just like Messi. The games they did nothing in - and some of their very big ones - are forgotten.

When it comes to this grand debate about the greatest ever, there will never be a definitive answer, because no-one has the perfect career.

Messi, however, has come far closer than most.


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