Lionel Messi missed his penalty. Argentina lost the Copa America Centenario Final. It was the second consecutive Copa America loss to Chile on penalties. It was the third-straight summer with an international final loss after extra time. Messi has yet to win a “major” tournament with Argentina.
We live in an era where everything must be of great, enduring significance. We don’t talk about the moment. We talk about how we will talk about the moment in the years to come. Said moment, of course, will be forgotten, in the coming months if not weeks. We don’t care who won. We only care who “choked.”
Will Messi be defined by his missed penalty and third successive international failure? No. Should he be? No. Absolutely not. He’s the greatest player of all-time, regardless of what he does with Argentina.
The Copa America is a fine tournament. It’s historic. It has little resonance long term. Inveterate winner Diego Maradona never won it. Neither did Pele, who reached one final in 1959. That presumes we’re crediting “Copa America 2016: Back for More Cash Edition” as a bonafide edition of the tournament. “The players cared” doesn’t quite answer that.
Great international moments come at the World Cup. Messi did not win it in 2014. He only single-handedly dragged Argentina to the final and won the Golden Boot for best player.
One could debate whether Messi “proved” himself with that performance in Brazil. But, it does not matter. This isn’t 1970. The best standard of international competition is not the World Cup. It’s at top European club level. There, no player has been as dominant as Messi. No player has been as dominant as consistently over time.
Messi has won the Ballon d’Or award for world’s best player five times. He has finished the top three nine times.
Individual success? Since he hit his stride during the 2008-09 season, Messi has scored 281 goals and had 111 assists in 270 league appearances. He has scored 20-plus goals in eight-straight seasons. Legendary, relatively contemporary Spanish strikers Raul and David Villa had six 20 goal seasons combined, not consecutively.
Too easy to score in Spain? Fine. Messi has 76 goals and 20 assists in 85 appearances in the Champions League over that same span.
Is Messi a winner? Many times over. He has won eight Primera Liga titles with Barcelona. He has lifted the Champions League trophy four times. He also has four Copa Del Rey triumphs. That’s just counting the important trophies.
No player has bested Messi at his prime, as an individual or as a winner. No one’s prime – Messi’s is still ongoing – has lasted as long. He has faced better talent than the legends of old and a more physically demanding schedule.
Some of the greats have been defined by international moments – Maradona had 1986. Pele had 1958 and 1970 – but those moments can be fluky and context dependent. They are magnified in retrospect, and look far more certain.
Is it Kevin Keegan’s fault he emerged when England were a dumpster fire? How differently is Maradona remembered if a handball gets ruled correctly in the 1986 quarterfinal? How does Messi’s 2010 tournament go without Maradona coaching?
That’s not to say winning something with Argentina is unimportant. It’s been a source of pressure and pain for Messi. He still, after leading a team to three-straight finals and setting the all-time Albiceleste scoring record, has his Argentine critics. Idiocy and short-sightedness know no national boundaries. But, considering what he does week-in, week-out it’s grossly unfair to judge him based on it.
Today, Messi choked. His “legacy” will be irrevocably stained. That will happen to every great athlete, until the narrative changes or moves on. Tomorrow, everyone invested in an Argentine triumph in 2018 will hope he wasn’t serious about retiring. Not because he’s the greatest of all-time, but because he’s the greatest right now.