When it comes to international football, I have been a loyal Germany fan for thirty-four years. However, I’ve also been a huge Diego Maradona fan and, as a result of that, I’ve been a Barcelona fan (behind Arsenal and Hamburg, in that order, of course) and an Argentina fan. When I learnt that Lionel Messi, in my opinion the best player in the world today, retired from the national team, I felt and still feel shock, sadness and disappointment.
I’m shocked because he’s such a young and talented player. Without him, there’s a part of international football that will be lacking because of his absence. His absence, on some level, diminishes the opposing team’s accomplishments. It can also cause regret and doubt in his mind. If he doesn’t play out his abilities and let nature take its course on his footballing skills, he’ll always wonder if the next World Cup or Copa America would’ve been ‘the one.’ More importantly, he’s such a joy to watch. Without him, there’s less colour in the tapestry of the beautiful game.
I’m disappointed because he’s such an icon to so many people–children AND adults–that for him to retire is, in my opinion, a poor message to give to those he inspires. As an athlete and coach, albeit never on his level in any of the sports I’ve competed in and coached, I’ve always accepted that one team or player has to lose and the other one has to win. That’s part of sports. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating that he’s lost four international finals but that’s part of the game. What kind of message is this to send to our youth–quit when things seem impossible? Isn’t that why, or at least one reason why, we get into sports to begin with–to overcome the impossible on the pitch and in ourselves? Some of the other best players to have put on a pair of studs also never won a World Cup or their continental title but they never called it quits. Portugal’s legend, Eusébio never won either. Ferenc Puskás, Hungary’s superstar of the 1950s and 1960s, did win The Olympics and some smaller international titles but not The European Championship or The World Cup. And, of course, there is the Dutch Master, Johan Cruyff. He also never won the European Championship or The World Cup but he didn’t use that as his reason for giving up international football.
I’m sad because, as an athlete and a coach, I’ve experienced loss and setback after setback so I empathise with him. I’ve had some great moments too but there have been more setbacks than triumphs.
Recently, Maradona accused Messi of not having heart. At the time, I felt that he was being harsh. Your time has passed, Diego. Let Messi have his time. That’s what I thought at when I heard of Maradona’s statements but now I feel that maybe Maradona is right. I also felt that Messi needs to win a World Cup or Copa America to be regarded as a legend once his playing days are over. However, when I thought of the legends and the likes of Cruyff, Michel Platini (did win The European Championship in 1984), Eusébio, Puskás, Lev Yashin and George Best, all who also never won a World Cup, I changed my mind. In my opinion, Messi does need to win The World Cup to get out of Maradona’s very large shadow but to be a legend all he has to do is be his best and stay the course no matter how hard it is. It’s when things are difficult that someone shows his true character. When things are easy, well, it’s just easy. It might be fun and all smiles but it doesn’t really show what you’re made of.
Messi, like to many others, is my son’s all-time favourite player and Argentina is his favourite international team and Barcelona is his favourite club team. My son is eight and starting to really get into football. There are many players my son likes and looks up to–Neymar and Ozil are two of them–and he’ll still enjoy football without Messi playing for Argentina but it won’t be the same. It’ll be like Magic without Bird or McEnroe without Borg. It’ll still good to watch but not the best.
So, I’m hoping and praying that Messi made this decision in an emotional state–and he was in one–and, as I said earlier, I empathised with him. When the camera flashed on him as Chile was raising the Copa America trophy, tears welled up in my own eyes. When some time has passed and Argentina is preparing for 2018 World Cup qualification, I hope and pray that Messi reconsiders and announces his availability for national selection. As I said before, staying the course when things are hard is a sign of true character. So, too, is admitting you made a mistake. I believe his decision is a mistake. I hope if (when) he changes his mind, it’s not too late and the world can bask in his footballing majesty once again. However, if he doesn’t change his mind, I hope and pray that his decision, in the end, is the best one for him; that he has no doubts over it (he will always have regrets) and that he is happy.