Culture / Sporting Life

Messi Choked?

Joke of a Claim Obscures the Real Copa America Farce — and Failure

BY // 06.27.16

Lionel Messi often makes LeBron James seem like a rank amateur in comparison. That’s how the high the brilliance of the greatest soccer player on the planet reaches. Anyone who saw Messi’s perfectly placed, arching free kick against the United States Men’s National Team in Houston, the one that toyed with the laws of geometry before dropping into the very top corner of the net, understands that when Messi is great his greatness towers over the greatness of the kings of other sports.

No one laps the field quite like Messi. Not LeBron. Not Tom Brady. Not even Clayton Kershaw.

But Messi wasn’t great against Chile in Sunday night’s Copa America final. He wasn’t great in another international championship moment. At least, not in finishing. Messi created plenty of chances against Chile, but he couldn’t finish — or get anyone else on his team to finish. He even completely airmailed Argentina’s first try in penalty kicks over the goal.

So does this mean the Soccer God, choked?

That’s what the braying cacklers on the Internet are screaming IN ALL CAPS. That’s what many of Messi’s own countrymen are charging.

It’s all so … absurd. Messi didn’t seize up as much as he was colossally let down. By the infamously corrupt and bungling Argentine Football Federation. By his own teammates who couldn’t convert the chances he served them up to win the Copa final long before penalty kicks. By the Argentine fans who somehow continually find him lacking compared to Diego Maradona.

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Something is broken with Argentina’s soccer program — and to think it’s Messi is laughable. Whether the 29-year-old Messi’s abrupt retirement from international play in the wake of Sunday’s loss is pure frustration, a carefully-considered ploy or shockingly real doesn’t change what it signifies at this moment. Messi is screaming that things are a mess.

Will anyone listen to the best soccer player in the world?

If Shaq faced constant double teams during his career, the 5-foot-7 Messi dealt with quadruple teams and then some against a determined Chile squad. There were times six Chile players crowded around Messi like moths drawn to the a flame. To say he didn’t do enough lacks any grasp on reality. Messi opened up huge swaths of the field. His teammates needed to pounce on the chances this provided. They shrunk from the moment, not Messi.

Lionel Messi dominated this Copa run.
Lionel Messi dominated this Copa run.

Anyone lucky enough to witness Messi live in Houston understands how he grabs games with a force unseen in even other superstars. His second touch of the game — a beautifully lifted pass — produced an easy head-in goal. Less than 10 minutes later, he dribbled through three defenders and easily got off a point-blank shot. And he still had enough left in the 85th minute to setup the final goal.

When Messi has any space, any chance to seize a game, he latches on with the fury Cersei displayed in unleashing medieval times’ version of a nuclear bomb in the Game of Thrones finale. The charge that Messi cares more about his Spanish pro team than Argentina couldn’t have rung more false. He dominated his long-awaited moment on U.S. soil and clearly couldn’t have been more devastated by the Chile loss. Messi sat on his cushioned bench seat for an eternity after Argentina’s 4-2 penalty kick heartbreaker, seemingly unable to move.

Messi bleed for Argentina despite the shoddy way his national federation treated him. Do you think any superstar American professional athlete would have endured what Messi did to compete for his country? The Argentine Football Federation butchered the team’s travel plans in an apparent clueless cost-cutting bungle. Messi and his Argentine teammates lost valuable rest and preparation time, being forced to spend nearly two full extra days in Houston in limbo, before getting a flight to New Jersey for the final. Chile, a much-less established soccer program, experienced no such travel snafus. Whether that made a difference in the championship match will never be known.

What’s clear is that Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and the rest of the original Dream Team never would have stood for such nonsense.

Messi is such a low-key mega star that he sometimes gets taken for granted by the country that needs him most. This is not someone who typically makes a fuss. When a shockingly lack NRG Stadium security failed to even notice that a fan in an Argentina jersey had gotten onto the field for several minutes, Messi hugged the guy — twice — and urged him to stop bowing at his soccer cleats.

Can you imagine? J.J. Watt would have knocked a fan intruder into next week. Messi embraced the man.

Maybe, Messi needs to scream bloody retirement to make everyone realize what amateurs he’s dealing with. The most brilliant athlete in the world shouldn’t have to go through this.

Lionel Messi didn’t fail Argentina. Argentina’s failed him. And it all could rob the rest of world the chance to see soccer’s unparalleled maestro on the grandest international stages. That’s a loss for everyone.

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