ST FACE-OFF: Lionel Messi - flop or not? Marc Lim goes head to head with Rohit Brijnath

Argentina's Lionel Messi shows his dejection after being defeated by Chile in the Copa America Centenario final on June 26, 2016.
Argentina's Lionel Messi shows his dejection after being defeated by Chile in the Copa America Centenario final on June 26, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Rohit Brijnath: Failure humanises artist who still offers more pleasure than any other footballer

You can call the best player in the world a choker and find no irony in it. You can insist his legacy is tainted and claim that Maradona's toenails were more talented than he is and you'll find enough people in furious agreement. You can snigger at his penalty kick in yesterday morning's Copa America final which landed on a nearby planet and mock his tears that followed his national team missteps because, hey, it's a free world.

You can dismiss Lionel Messi as overrated and dub him a flop, though my Argentine colleague Rodolfo will tell you gently that "before Messi's era Argentina had problems even to reach the semi-finals of major international competitions". You can even call him a failure and insist that eight league trophies, three club World Cups, four Champions League titles, four Copa del Rey wins, six Spanish super cups and three European super cups is, well, unconvincing evidence without any national titles.

You can do all that and I won't argue, except to say Lionel Messi almost never fails me. Well, maybe only when he dived yesterday.

Of course he is flawed and imperfect but Messi - even yesterday for brief snatches of seconds - takes me to a place of pure pleasure that most athletes don't even know exist. Maybe rugby's All Blacks some days, like last weekend, when they're exchanging passes like a congregation of graceful mind readers.


Argentina's Lionel Messi walks after missing his shot during the penalty shoot-out against Chile during the Copa America Centenario final in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 26, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

In a world obsessed with handing out titles, someone's also got to be responsible for offering us art, for showing us the beauty in the smallest pass, for adding something to sport which can't be measured by numbers.

When Messi started work yesterday I was awake which I would not necessarily be if England were playing. Or Croatia. Much of European football is high-strategy and low-imagination (there are exceptions like Spain), football turned into cautious science, methodical and technical and as inspiring as a lab experiment. Winning has become so important that often victory is a deeply boring business.

 
 

A colleague told me I was being a romantic and I was bemused: Isn't that what sport is for? The place where we express ourselves? Or have we stolen all the fun from it and made football too important to the planet?

Of course Messi wants to win and needs to win and plays to win and mostly does win, but I see winning every week. It's how he plays which is rarer. When he gets the ball, possibility awakens. Will he shimmy or dummy? Will he make defenders believe in ghosts by not being where they thought he should be? If Superman changes in a telephone booth, Messi works magic in spaces the same size. Who else does this stuff?

Part of the allure of sport is not the act itself but the promise of it, the anticipation that something otherworldly is in the offing. With Messi we think anything is possible which of course is entirely untrue but then he does things which make you think it could be true. Like that free kick against the Americans in the semi-finals, which was not a centimetre too high, or a kmh too slow, or a rotation too many, but just perfect. The ball fitted into a gap which was the size of a ball.

Yesterday, too, almost anything seemed possible as he dribbled down the wing when no space existed and accelerated like a bearded monk desperately chasing nirvana. He took on three defenders, dived, got a yellow card, mispassed and then mis-backheeled. He was inexact, always one dribble or a pass short, and yet still he was fun.

As a writer I enjoy all athletes for variety enlivens sport and we need the thinker and the grinder, the muscled and the meticulous. Yet, in modern times, sport seems to lean towards athletes of power (Serena Williams, LeBron James) and precise repetition (Novak Djokovic), all of them formidable and yet there's nothing exquisitely artistic to them as there is to Messi. He doesn't play to dazzle, it's just that his play does dazzle.

Messi wasn't great enough yesterday and so he must wear the criticism, but let's not be narcissistic enough to lecture a five-time player of the year about pressure. His international retirement seems emotionally driven and he should reconsider for he has elevated the game too much to let it grind him down. Artists anyway don't really quit.

Great athletes are imperfect heroes but we can't seem to bear it. Sachin Tendulkar, for some, never won enough cricket matches for India. Roger Federer's defeats by Rafael Nadal left his career looking like a poem of unfinished stanzas. Now Messi may be forever shadowed by his own talking point. It makes him nicely human though clearly in sport it's only Gods we want.

Marc Lim: With Argentina, this genius has always fallen just short


Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi reacts during extra time against Chile during the Copa America Centenario final in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 26, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

The sight of a grown man crying is never pretty. More so when it comes from a man viewed by many as a footballing god.

Faced buried in the chest of a team-mate, eyes swollen with tears, shaking his head in disbelief, Lionel Andres Messi, the captain of the world's top-ranked footballing nation, wore the look of a man who had just lost everything.

We've seen the emotional side of him before, most notably when Argentina lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany. But never something like this.

Perhaps it was the humiliation of sending a penalty shoot-out spot kick high into the New Jersey sky, to set his team on the way to another Copa America final defeat and a third straight loss in as many years in a major final.

Or perhaps, he already knew what was coming - that after yet another heartbreak, he was done. This was too much to bear and he would shortly announce his retirement from the international game.

Or maybe, just maybe, deep down, the Barcelona genius shared my sentiment - that in an Argentina jersey, his career has been a flop. And it hurt. A lot.

In the blue-and-red stripes of Barca, Messi has won everything - from domestic league and Cup trophies to European and world club tournaments.

A record five-time recipient of the world's footballer of the year accolade, kids from Afghanistan to America go to bed dreaming of taking on defenders the way Leo does. Others try to score goals like him. What they can't do on the field, they try on PlayStations. But even then, the goals still don't look as remarkable as the real ones.

But for all that Messi has accomplished as a club player and as an ambassador for the game, his accomplishments for Argentina have paled in comparison.

While he goes on the same slalom dribbles and scores the same out-of-this-world goals, when it matters most, Messi always fell short for his nation.

He is Argentina's record goal-scorer with 55 goals. Yet in 113 appearances for La Albiceleste, he has failed to guide them to a single trophy.

Perhaps even more glaring is that in four finals, three Copa America and one World Cup, Messi neither scored nor had a hand in any goal. When it mattered most, he was a non-factor.

The argument in football for great players who don't seem to be able to lead their teams to success is that the sport is a team game. No one man can single-handedly influence a result. Ironically, that argument works against Messi.

Throughout his career, at Barca and Argentina, Messi has been surrounded by only the best.

Ronaldinho, Xavi, Neymar, Luis Suarez at Barca. Hernan Crespo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero with Argentina. Be it at club or with country, his team were consistently ranked either at the top or among he best.

Teams he played for were built around him. Who would dare risk the fallout from not moulding one's team with the world's best player in mind?

More so than most footballers on this planet, Messi, since making his debut for Argentina in 2005, consistently had the supporting cast to mount a realistic title charge at the Copa America and World Cup. Yet he failed.

Some might argue that helping Argentina to four Cup finals is achievement in itself. But lest we forget, this is Messi, a name so synonymous with football greatness that it is an entry in the Urban dictionary - as the best footballer. Ever.

Forgive me if I think he should be held to a higher standard.

The reality of sport, of record books, is that after all the oohs and ahhs of appreciating an athlete's genius, of putting that wondrous goal on loop on YouTube, what it ultimately comes down to is: Did you win?

It may not apply to children's sport or the recreational athlete, but for professionals at the highest level, it is what defines them, and ultimately what they will be judged on.

That football's greatest decides to call time, at only 29, with the World Cup in just two years, is a shame.

"I think this is best for everyone," said Messi. "First of all for me, then for everyone."

It is unlikely everyone will agree. Almost everyone has taken to social media to ask the star to reconsider. Surely, that fan who fell at his feet to worship Messi after he scored a stunning free kick against the United States last week wants to see his "god" rise again.

I, for one, would be happy to also see him give it one last go, to be proven wrong about such a gifted player.

But as his international record stands now, the world's greatest footballer is a flop in my book.