Lionel Messi on Three Years, Three Finals, Three Defeats: Hard luck, or just plain falling short?

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There had been a hundred and twenty minutes of football, each side a man down, legs and souls worn out from all the vain attempts to end the game in normal time. It had come down to the lottery called penalty shootouts, and easily the biggest name on the pitch (and on any pitch as a matter of fact), he stepped up, the fate of a golden generation in his hands (or feet as the case may be). The opposing team had even played into his hands, having missed their first spot kick….but he blazed it over, and the rest is heartbreaking, tearful history.

To say that Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer of his generation is pretty much akin to saying that Ghanaians are black (yeah, I could have used the “Jesus is Lord” analogy, but non-Christians). There have been the four Champions League titles, the eight La Liga trophies, the five Ballon D’Or awards, the goal-scoring records smashed on a regular with the ease of breaking groundnuts. The argument has since shifted to whether the diminutive forward should be hailed as the greatest player that has ever existed in the sport’s nearly century-and-a-half history. Truth be told though, a debate of this nature would not arise in the first place, if his stellar club career thus far could be matched with equal bliss in national colours.

Not too long ago, Lionel Messi had been criticised in more than a few quarters as not applying the same passion to the blue-and-white as he did when featuring for the club where he has achieved so much. Olympic gold in 2008 had been the only evidence of a national honour, and when a quarter-final defeat to Germany at the 2010 World Cup was followed by elimination at the hands of Uruguay at the 2011 edition of the Copa America tournament, some cynically referred to Messi as being “Spanish”. He has since silenced that set of wailers though (pardon the metaphor), inspiring Argentina to three finals in three years.

Sadly, though, that’s as good as it gets for both the player and the national side. They have been so close, and yet so far from actual glory. Germany, who knocked them out in 2006 and 2010, remain their “bête noire” on the world stage, denying them yet again in 2014. Two consecutive summers of heartbreak have followed too, with Chile snatching continental glory from their grasp last year, and last night.

One wonders why it always goes wrong for the Argentine national side and the little man at the final hurdle, why they just about bottle it at the death. There is abundance of talent, and the lineup in itself is fairly balanced, but each time, something keeps them from crossing the line between good and great. Gonzalo Higuain has established himself as a big-game choker, Sergio Aguero for all his predatory instinct just tends to switch off when it matters most, and Messi…..well, is simply Messi. Amazing, mesmerising, easy on the eye, but Fate can be a cruel, spiteful lady, and the tears at the end said it all. Three defeats in three finals in three years are not one-offs, and there is no coincidence here either. Unlike in Catalunya where everything fits perfectly, there is still a missing piece in Buenos Aires, one which we cannot really wrap our heads around.

This edition of the Copa America tournament had the enthusiastic U. S home crowd chant Messi’s name even when he was not on the pitch, and across the oceans in France, Austrian supporters in their match against Portugal chanted the same name, in an attempt to goad Cristiano Ronaldo, who is pretty much the only person who offers any kind of competition to the little man in terms of (on-pitch) greatness.

Messi is loved by many, respected by all (unless you are strict about tax regimes), and these letdowns should not take anything from his contributions to the sport. However, when you consider the fact that Zinedine Zidane shone for both club and country, that Maradona almost single-handedly lifted Argentina and Napoli, that Michel Platini conquered with both France and Juventus, as well as Pele’s legendary triumphs, there is some ammo for Messi’s critics, and while the jury is still out as to whether Messi has absolutely earned legendary status, he certainly still has time to break the duck (he is 28).

Or perhaps not. The four-time Champions League winner has dropped hints of retiring from international football, and while that would be harsh on national team supporters (and to an extent question his mental strength), he cannot be blamed too much. Yes, there is the matter of having his legacy stained, but we understand, the multiple heartbreaks have been too heavy to bear.

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