COMMENTARY

Messi: Flop or not? Yes: With Argentina, this genius has always fallen just short

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 anything 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.


PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

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?

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 slaloming 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 the 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Yes: With Argentina, this genius has always fallen just short'. Print Edition | Subscribe