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Opinion: Lionel Messi weighed down by the burden of a nation

Arguably the greatest footballer of his generation, some suggest that the failure to win a trophy with his national team is a black mark against Lionel Messi's name. Not so, writes DW's Shamil Shams.

Arguably the greatest footballer of his generation, some suggest that the failure to win a trophy with his national team is a black mark against Lionel Messi’s name. Not so, writes DW’s Shamil Shams.
Like most Messi fans, I was hopeful that the little Argentine would end his country’s 23-year trophy drought in this year’s Copa America, held in the US.

The Barcelona forward had come so close to winning the World Cup in 2014, losing to the tournament’s best team Germany in extra time of the final. In July 2015, at the last Copa America, the Argentine team again fell at the final hurdle, losing to Chile on penalties.

With the same opponents in this year’s Copa, fans hoped this would be Messi’s year at last. But it wasn’t to be. Messi came agonizingly close to silverware again but his side lost to Chile on penalties once again. Three finals in a row and three late defeats – how painful!

Messi – one of the most decorated and gifted footballers of his generation, has won 28 trophies with his Spanish club F.C. Barcelona – but he broke down in tears after the latest final loss with his national team – on June 26 in New Jersey’s MetLife stadium.

Soon after, he announced his retirement from international football. “It’s not meant for me. For me the national team is over. I’ve done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion,” the 29-year-old told media after the defeat.

Messi’s countless fans all over the world are in a state of shock. Why would a player like Messi, considered by most to be in the same league as legendary footballers like Maradona, Pele and Johan Cruyff, quit international football at such a young age? He’s easily young enough to play in another World Cup and a Copa America. But the pain that Messi feels after his shootout miss, and the public reaction to it, is probably much greater than what his fans are feeling right now.

Despite carrying the Argentine squad on his shoulders and reaching three back-to-back cup finals, Messi is deemed by many of his compatriots as a “traitor,” not loyal to La Albiceleste. They say he is a Catalonian, a Barcelona legend, who doesn’t perform at his best when playing for the national team. And this time, he even missed a crucial penalty. “Don’t come back to Argentina if you lose the final” were the words of legendary Maradona before the Chile game.

While Messi is worshipped in Barcelona, in Argentina he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. With Messi as captain, Argentina tops the FIFA world rankings, but the burden of winning a major competition with his country was probably too much for the Barcelona forward to bear.

Messi made me and millions of people across continents fall in love with football. His slalom runs, his ability to dribble past four or five defenders, his breathtaking goals and assists have left all of us in awe. He will continue to do that for many more years for F.C. Barcelona, but it is a loss for the Argentines that one of their most gifted players ever will not play for them again.

The argument that Messi won’t be considered a footballing great until he wins a World Cup or Copa America is unjustified. In an age when club football clearly outshines international football in terms of quality and intensity, Messi has proven himself a notch above most players. But the burden of this argument is felt not only by Messi but also his fans. It is soul-crushing.

While I hope that Messi will rescind his decision and play for his national team at least until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, if he chooses to focus on club football only, we have to respect his decision.

Despite footballing rivalries and our personal preferences, it is a sad day for the beautiful game. We have forced a genius to end his international career prematurely. We have constantly criticized him for something which was never his fault. Football is a team sport, and we can’t blame the failure of the Argentine team solely on Messi.

His legacy might not include a World Cup, but in terms of talent and skills Lionel Messi is in no way inferior to the past greats. If Pele and Maradona are the “kings of football,” Messi deserves a throne of his own, regardless of what he achieved in a light blue and white shirt.

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