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Messi, Five Years Apart

On the footballer's legacy.

Art by Ben Hines.

vs. Manchester United

May 28th, 2011

Wembley Stadium, London

Champions League Final

Messi picks up the ball in the centre circle and immediately puts United’s centre-back on his arse by dragging the ball behind him with the outside of his boot. He tears away in a dribble of barely perceptible touches, his feet never really seeming to make contact with ball nor ground, all giving the impression of a man walking on water. He reaches the edge of the penalty area, and lays it off to David Villa on his right, putting him in the perfect position to cross the ball back for an easy finish. But Villa overhits his cross, Messi arrives a millisecond too late, and the ball skids away.

No matter. United clearly could not contain him, and he scored one and initiated another to win the Champions League for the third time in his young career. It was already apparent that Messi, at only 24 years old, was to be one of the best to have played the game. He was the crown jewel of the early 2010s Barcelona sides which sit among the best in the sport’s history, and was beloved by his city. Messi had moved to Barcelona when he was 13, signing his first contract with the club on a napkin. The club had paid for treatment of his growth hormone deficiencies, which would have scuppered any sporting career he aspired to. He seemed destined to remain the ultimate one-club man, an adopted Catalan, taken in and cared for by a region so often repressed and in need of their own heroes. In doing so, they had forged one of their own.

vs. Chile

June 26th, 2016

MetLife Stadium, New York City

Copa América Centenario Final

Messi is strolling towards the goal and a wall of Argentine fans. The second Copa América in two years has reached the same conclusion as the first, with Argentina facing Chile on penalties after a goalless final. He takes the ball, places, then adjusts it. Begins his trademark two step run up. Hits it high and to the right. But he’s leaning back ever so slightly, and the shot blazes over. Leo clings to his Albiceleste shirt, and wishes that he could sink into the boggy Meadowlands upon which the stadium is built.

Though cherished by Catalonia, Messi’s relationship with Argentina, the country of his birth, is much more complicated. While Diego Maradona was the fulfillment of Borocotó’s 1928 prophecy of the great Argentine footballer as an “urchin with a dirty face…and a sparkling gaze that seems to hint at a picaresque laugh”, Messi never truly fit that mould. He is emblematic of the globalisation of modern sports, leaving his homeland at an early age to pursue a dream. His football upbringing was not on the streets of Rosario, but in the technical confines of Barça’s La Masia academy. Vitally, for all his success in Europe, Messi had brought none of that success home across the Atlantic. As such, he could never reach Maradona’s monstrous level of cultural cache there. Three times in three years he had the chance at glory for Argentina, at the World Cup in 2014 and two consecutive Copas América in the following years. Each time he lost tight finals in agonising fashion. The public perception of him in his homeland can’t help but be affected by his career path, and by those who came before him. After that shootout miss, Messi, unquestionably the greatest in the game, would announce his retirement from international football at just 29. It seemed like he knew, on some level, that he’d missed his chance to become Maradona.

vs. Brazil

July 10th, 2021

Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro

Copa América Final

The years following that penalty miss were largely disappointing. The national team was plagued by chronic mismanagement after Messi recanted his retirement, and Barça’s results were defined by a series of footballing embarrassments. The once wildly profitable club had fallen into such debt that they could no longer afford to keep him, even after he took a pay cut. Messi now represented both Barcelona’s greatest success as the best to ever play the game, who could never be sold due to his adoration of the club and city, and their deepest shame in somehow still driving him away. He held a tissue to his face for his entire final press conference, barely keeping it together.

As the referee calls time on the final, Messi is surrounded. He wasn’t particularly involved in Argentina’s 1-0 win over arch-rivals Brazil, though he had carried them through the tournament up to that point. His team hoists him aloft, having brought glory to Argentina at the tenth time of asking. His departure from Barcelona will not be for another month. But even with that great uncertainty looming, 15 years of hurt comes out as he bounces towards his team hoisting a trophy which is literally half his height.

It’s a tragedy that Messi could not feel the unconditional love of both his country and his city at the same time, having been cast out by Barcelona at the very end. Few players of comparable ability have had to settle for one or the other in the way he has. But at the moment of utmost upheaval in his career, he still managed to briefly find the eye of the hurricane. For one night everything could be as uncomplicated as it should have been.

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