An old joke asks, “How does an Argentine commit suicide?” The answer is, “By jumping off his own ego.” These days, the most famous Argentine in the world has an ego my six-year-old could jump off with a giggle. Lionel Messi, the best soccer player in the world, has lost another international championship final. This was the fourth out of four. Messi has announced he is retiring from the Albiceleste, as Argentina’s national soccer team is known. This must not happen.
I came to be an Argentina soccer fan through odd circumstances. I’m not of Argentine descent, and neither was anybody I knew growing up. But in 1990 when I was 16, I went on vacation to Mexico with my family. Luckily for me, my parents were chasing after my seven-year-old brother as I enjoyed the lax drinking age below the border. The World Cup was happening, and in the local bars of Cozumel (even then I eschewed tourist traps) these games were everything.
Mexico had been disqualified because of a scandal. The United States had no team in the tournament. At a loss for who to root for or why while I drank my otherwise-forbidden Corona with lime, I saw a little man in a blue and white shirt on the low-definition televisions in the local bars.
It was Diego Maradona. He single-handedly turned a sport I thought was for my less-athletic friends into an inspiration. I watched him take the ball and dice through defenders, often dishing off to a willing scorer, but sometimes billowing the back of the net himself. He was ego. He was tenacity. Just watch him as he juggles a ball.
The Unlikely Powerhouse
As it turned out, Maradona’s team was the defending champion. As is the case today, Argentina was considered a powerhouse in international soccer. But it’s a strange thing. Argentina has the lowest population of any country whose team has won the cup in the modern era, and they won it twice. They really have no business competing with much larger countries like Brazil and Germany. But they do because of players like Maradona.
After his retirement, the Albiceleste went through a drought—there has been no trophy since. But when I was in Argentina in 2003 for a theater conference, I heard murmurs. Chatter about a kid who was destined to change the game. They were talking about Messi. Make no mistake, at the same time Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano were fantastic players, giving Argentina a great chance in international competition. But then Messi happened. And happened. And happened.
I’m not going to link to a video of Messi’s greatest moments, because every soccer fan has seen them and everyone else can look them up. But suffice to say this little man has done things with a soccer ball on his foot that would make Pele blush. In fact, and it may not be nice to say so, but Messi is a vastly better soccer player than either Pele or Maradona. How do we know this? Because neither Pele nor Maradona had success where it counts: in the professional European leagues.
Messi has won the Ballons de’Or (golden boot, or MVP of soccer) five times, more times than any other player. His professional team, FC Barcelona, has won the Spanish league eight times and the European professional championship four times. These results are Jordanesque, and suggest a similar dominance of his sport.
But something happens when Messi wears his national colors. That dominance flashes in early games, but every time so far has stalled. In those four games, the finals of major international competitions, Argentina comes up short. Every time, Argentina loses, and the best player in the world, maybe the best player ever, is left to mourn. But it isn’t his fault. It has never been his fault.
Let Us Keep Dreaming
I’m lucky. I didn’t suffer the indignities of the true Argentina fan, the fan in Buenos Aires whose entire day after Messi’s latest loss was full of the sturm und drang of horrible defeat. Here in Brooklyn, it was mentioned in the sports update during my drive to work, but only as an afterthought. I can ignore it. Messi can’t.
Look, I don’t blame him for wanting to be done with it. He is being asked to do something that nobody else is asked to do. The only other player remotely near his level in the world is Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the prettiest of pretty boys. But what has Portugal won? Exactly nothing. Meanwhile, England is losing to Iceland. Things could be worse.
Messi has been beaten down. Finals of major international soccer championships have become incredibly boring because they almost always end with penalty kicks, that saddest of ways to determine a winner. Should Messi have slotted his penalty kick? Sure. But it’s a free-throw. It’s not LeBron James making an impossible block as time dwindles. This is why Americans look a bit askance at soccer.
But Messi can never be LeBron. He can never be Jordan. He doesn’t play in a five-on-five game where one man can simply take over (although he has done this 11-on-11 at times). It’s not even the NFL, where a quarterback can hold that kind of power. Messi is, has been, and must be a diamond-encrusted cog in a wheel of ball movement. He is only a part, a moment in the passing exchange. Those moments live with audacious speed and control, they leave us breathless, but most don’t lead to goals. That’s not soccer.
I imagined having a son would be a constant sports-watching experience, making sure he could immediately bond with men in any bar in the country thanks to a decent sports IQ. My kid’s not a sports nut so far, but when I show him video of Messi, he lights up. It is magic. Magic means that, notwithstanding everything—the terrible results, the national shame—one day Messi can raise the World Cup.
Is it too much to ask? Of course. Messi is like the guy who wins the Nobel Prize and has the grandmother who says, “It takes you this long to win it?” We need Leo. I need Leo. My son needs Leo. Come back, Messi.
You’re right: it may never happen. You might thrill us through qualifications and lose in finals. But it’s okay. We want to watch, we want you to thrill us. If the burden is too heavy, share it. You are not Argentina, even if Argentina thinks you are. Please come back, Leo. And know that no matter what, we love you.