SINGAPORE — Just over 12 years ago, on 23 August 2008, Lionel Messi won his only international honour for Argentina – and I happened to witness it in person.
It was at the extraordinary Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, almost at the tail end of the 2008 Summer Olympics. I was covering the Games for my former newspaper, and even though I wasn’t required to cover the football gold-medal match, I decided I would scalp a ticket just to catch a glimpse of emerging greatness.
The kick-off was strangely at noon, in the sweltering summer heat of the Chinese capital. My seat was way up in the nosebleed seats, and I had to squint to see the jersey numbers on the players.
Despite the conditions, the player I had come to watch still stood out – zipping all over the field, evading opponents’ challenge almost with glee, and supplying probing passes for his teammates to try and finish off.
That player, of course, was Messi. He was barely past 21 years of age, yet the 89,102-strong, predominantly Chinese crowd already knew his name. They chanted for him, almost willing him to bestow a moment of magic to win the gold medal for his country.
He couldn’t, although Argentina still won the gold over Nigeria with a solitary goal from another soon-to-be-famous player – Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel di Maria.
As I left the stadium, drenched in sweat due to the heat, I overheard two Chinese fans grumbling about the match, “What a waste, Messi didn’t score.”
And that, just about sums up the eventual tragedy of Messi. Everyone – fans, teammates, national team and most gallingly, his only club Barcelona – takes his genius for granted.
Cursed to be ‘social media’ generation’s best
This is what happens when a player sustains his brilliance for the best part of the last 20 years, filling social media to the brim with jaw-dropping feats throughout his trophy-laden career. Everyone expects Messi to be the “Messiah” for every match.
In a way, Messi is cursed to be the world’s best footballer in the age of social media, where every match is available online, in high-definition, all day, all night, permanently.
Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff – these “greatest footballers” of their generations – must have had poor games in which they struggled to impose their brilliance. Fortunately for them, many got lost in time as they were not well-documented by media platforms.
Not now. Messi’s contributions are dissected almost forensically by every pundit or fan, often with a sense of disappointment that Messi did not lift his matches with “the greatest goals of all time”.
When he could not lift his club or country to league titles and cup honours, he was said to have “underachieved”. It was almost as if his Barca or Argentina teammates did not matter; it was as if his 17 first-team seasons, 34 trophies and over 700 goals for club and country meant nothing if he could not win the next match.
Blamed for club, country’s underachievement
Yet, Messi soldiered on. Even as Argentina repeatedly fell short of expectations during the World Cups and Copa Americas since he became a mainstay in the senior team in 2005. Even as Barcelona fail to replace his exceptional former teammates (Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol) with equally capable ones, with the silent implication that he is expected to win the Spanish La Liga all on his own.
And he might have done so right up until the end of his extraordinary career. Messi has always been reserved and reticent in character, rarely offering quotable soundbites or appearing in “heroic” adverts – unlike his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo. He comes across as someone who just wants to play football all the time; nothing else matters.
Yet, like every other human, Messi also wants to be appreciated. Nobody likes being taken for granted.
So when the Argentinian national team blamed him for missing his penalty kick that cost them the 2016 Copa America title, he promptly announced his retirement from the team, although he reversed his decision soon after.
That should have been a warning for Barcelona. Still, they continued to be over-reliant on him, ignoring his frequent pleas that he “can’t go on forever”– a clear hint that he needs better coaches and teammates.
So when the Spanish giants spectacularly, humiliatingly, capitulated 2-8 to Bayern Munich in their Champions League quarter-final clash two weeks ago, it should have been a wake-up call for Barca.
Yet, the Spanish sports dailies preferred to blame Messi for not being at his best, for not turning the tide with his genius.
The final straw came when new Barca coach, hardliner Ronald Koeman, dismissed his closest teammates and warned him that he would no longer enjoy “privileges”.
Irrational expectations will follow him
And now, a relationship that was once filled with glorious joy has now been soured to such a degree that Messi does not want to play for his only club again.
No matter whether Barca will accede to Messi’s transfer request, the damage is already done. Messi will not get a heartwarming send-off by the fans when he retires as Barca’s greatest ever player; it is very likely that the thousands of Barca faithful will not even get to say goodbye to him in their gigantic Nou Camp home stadium.
It is a terrible conclusion, the result of everyone’s belief that Messi alone will solve all footballing problems until eternity. He couldn’t. No one can.
The sad reality is this: no matter which other club Messi may go next, such irrational expectations will continue to haunt him. This is his unique burden, accumulated through his glittering career, accentuated by the millions of fans proclaiming him to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
It’s similar to how the two Chinese fans still grumbled despite witnessing Messi helping Argentina win an Olympic gold, 12 years ago. Are these same fans now bragging to everyone that “I was there” when the greatest footballer of their generation won his only international title?
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 18 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.