If Lionel Messi thought the best way to avoid further abuse from the country of his birth in perhaps the most painful moment of his professional career was to immediately retire from international football, he was right.
Throughout his career, Messi has been mistreated by a nation that saw him constantly winning club and individual silverware, but never anything for them. Whether it was a conscious thought or not, he had to know that the erupting fury of a country that hasn’t won a title since 1993 would be squarely aimed at him after he played a significant part in losing a third major cup final in as many years. It’s the kind of thing that would instinctively switch a distraught mind into survival mode. And in this case, survival meant flipping anger into empathy and invectives into praise.
So, in this moment of unfathomable hopelessness before he would once again have to return to Argentina without achieving the success he has become accustomed to at Barcelona, he assigned blame to himself and told reporters that he was done with the national team. This immediately became bigger news than Argentina’s third straight failure or Chile’s second consecutive Copa America victory. The shock of losing Messi from international football at 29 years old just because he cares too much united the world in singing his praises and begging him to come back. And, for once, that included Argentina.
Argentine president Mauricio Macri expressed his pride in the team and his desire to watch “the world’s best player” for years to come, adding the hashtag “Don’tLeaveLio.”
Even Maradona, whose 1986 World Cup trophy (which he only won by cheating) gets lorded over Messi every time he puts on the Albiceleste shirt, pleaded for Messi to continue, predicting inevitable success for him at the 2018 World Cup.
From the AP:
“He has to continue!” Maradona told the site of local La Nacion newspaper. “He must go on because he has it in him and will last for a long while, because he will reach Russia in conditions to become world champion.”
This, mind you, is the same Maradona who said Messi “doesn’t have the personality to be a leader” during the Copa America Centenario and, just before the final, added that if the team didn’t win, they shouldn’t return to Argentina.
When the team arrived back in Buenos Aires the night after the final, there was a crowd that endured weather just as miserable as the country itself not to tear Messi limb from limb, but to demonstrate their love and gratitude.
Again, from the AP:
Dozens of emotional fans wearing the white and sky-blue striped jerseys of the national team, adorned with Messi’s number 10, waited in the rain for the team to arrive back from the tournament in the United States.
Some followed the team bus along the road leading from the airport to the Argentine Football Association complex. They waved flags, chanted” ‘’Messi is not leaving!” and carried banners. One of them read: “Messi: I love you more than I love my mom.”
On Twitter, the top trend in Argentina was the hashtag #MessiSi. Another was #SiVuelveMessiYo (“If Messi returns, I…” — as in “If Messi returns, I will get his face tattooed on my arm”). In a twist out of a children’s storybook, all it took for Argentina to love Messi was to lose him.
Since Messi made this decision under extreme duress, it seems likely that he will reconsider and return to the squad at some point before the 2018 World Cup. Perhaps after an extended break and once the Argentine football association solves its current administrative crisis. And if he does return, perhaps Argentina will appreciate him and bit more and treat him a bit better. And maybe that will help him play with the same joy he does with Barcelona and win the international title he craves most.