Unlike nearly everyone else merrily crammed onto the closed-off corner of Brady Street and Warren Avenue for Nomad World Pub’s fantastic Block Party event on Sunday night, when the planet's greatest soccer player stepped to the spot to take Argentina’s first attempt in the penalty kick shootout that would decide the winner of the Copa America Centenario tournament – and, apparently, decide much more than that afterward – I cringe-watched through fingers, with my hands in front of my face and my heart in my small intestine.
And, when the periodically mortal Lionel Messi – with the crushing weight of history, sports’ highest expectations and the eternally unappeasable standards of his home country pressing down on him – revealed, once again, that he is indeed human, skying his left-footed shot over the bar, grabbing his shirt with shock-stricken sadness and staggering away, eventually falling to the ground in tears several minutes later when Chile prevailed, beating the Argentines in the Copa final on penalties for the second straight year and hurling another runner-up ax into the heaving chest of the 5-foot-7 soft-spoken superstar, I felt bad. I felt sorry for the five-time FIFA Player of the Year who’s won dozens of (club) trophies and is worth (possibly partially tax-evaded) $300 million.
Let me explain the empathy.
puts on old letter jacket, settles into leather arm chair, plays Bruce Springsteen’s "Glory Days"
When I was 15, I had a difficult stretch of unfortunate experiences with penalties. Since this is almost certainly interesting to no one and only obliquely relevant to the rest of the post, I’ll be brief: In the fall, during the WIAA state soccer tournament, I missed a do-or-die penalty that ended our high school season; then in the spring, I missed another do-or-die penalty in the championship game of a tournament for my club team. Fun times!
When Messi missed his penalty, after an initial half-second of surprise, there was a chorus of laughter, heckling, "choke!" shouts and the inevitable declarations that "Ronaldo would’ve made it" – referencing captivating Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, considered 1A with/after Messi among the world's best players. The amused schadenfreude outside the Nomad was nothing, though, compared to the intense Twitter trolling and gleeful social media hate directed at Messi in the seconds, minutes and hours following his failure, which marked the third year in a row Argentina had lost in the final of a major tournament and the fourth time they’d come in second since 2007.
It surely never helped that national icon/fat idiot Diego Maradona, who captained Argentina to tournament victory at the 1986 World Cup but has since become a drug addict, failed head coach and frequent critic of Messi, told the team not to come back if it didn't win the Copa America. (Inevitably, Crying Messi became an instant meme, and tired, terrible Crying Jordan memes were re-introduced, allowing everyone to get the same shots in.)
The always-a-bridesmaid background is important for the context of understanding why, despite having not led Argentina to a title and supposedly now quitting the national team, it is nevertheless astoundingly, irrationally stupid to diminish Messi’s greatness, and especially to relegate him below Ronaldo, because of it.
After I squandered a game-ending, team-eliminating penalty for the second time, I was upset. That was a dozen years ago and who cares, so it doesn’t really matter, but I do vividly remember my coach – former U.S. men’s national team player, 1990 World Cup defender and without a doubt the best coach in any sport I’ve ever had, Jimmy Banks – putting his arm around me as we walked off the field, telling me a story of an (obviously much more important) international penalty he’d missed once and reminding me that my two second-half assists were the reason we’d tied the game 2-2 and even forced overtime and penalties.
Erstwhile and insignificant horn-tooting aside (I’m almost fully recovered; make sure to leave your friendly comments below!), that’s exactly the thought I had last night, watching and listening and reading ecstatic, illogical and reductive reactions to Messi’s missed kick – and, later, to his tears and announcement, which is possibly and hopefully just a threat, that he was retiring from international play. Without Messi, of course, Argentina would never have been there, in the Copa championship game for the second consecutive year, the World Cup final in 2014, atop the current FIFA rankings and one of the most popular teams on earth. But that’s obvious, even to trolls.
Would Ronaldo have made the penalty? Who knows, but probably. According to the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight, soccer teams in international tournaments convert nearly 75 percent of their penalty-shootout attempts, and the uber-confident Ronaldo is pretty much the prototype for a player you want taking a high-stakes kick. But while we bemoan Messi never raising a trophy for La Albiceleste, Ronaldo has yet to even lead Portugal to a final. Knocked out in the semifinals twice – at World Cup 2006 and Euro 2012 – Ronaldo’s national team was eliminated in the group stage at the last World Cup, partly thanks to the United States. Though it’s been an ugly and uninspiring run, that could soon change, as Portugal has reached these Euro Cup quarterfinals, where they face Poland on Thursday. Still, this isn't about dissing Ronaldo, even though his fans are somehow more insufferable than he is.
One thing Ronaldo would never do is quit. Messi showing weakness quitting the national team at only 29. Pathetic. — beto (@CheBeto_) June 27, 2016
The problem is we can’t just enjoy and appreciate greatness. LeBron James has been the preeminent basketball player in the galaxy for a decade, but until he won this latest NBA championship – his third, mind you – "all on his own," whatever that means, his ability and achievements were uniformly marginalized to the "yeah, but" sidelines of bar-stool banter and historical archiving. The best thing about sports is also the worst: everything is subject to opinion, speculation and, now, instant #hottake reaction.
Messi missed, so he’s the goat. If he’d made it, he’d be the GOAT.
For arguably the finest player of all time, nothing really changed because of Copa – he had a hat trick in 19 minutes of action against Panama, had a goal and two assists in the quarterfinal and scored on perhaps the most brilliant free kick ever taken on an American field against the U.S. in the semis – but everything changed. His play was as peerless as always, but now the narrative is different, the arguments about him more heated.
There’s no grand point to be made here. Penalty kicks suck, sports fans and social media are often brutal, Messi is still a phenomenal player and Argentina’s federation is a corrupt clusterf*** but, really, they all seem to be.
I’m just sad because, if Messi really is done with international soccer – and that’s highly questionable, given he made the comments in the emotional aftermath of the game and the next World Cup is less than two years away – we all suffer as fans. Soccer is called the beautiful game, and no one plays it with more breathtaking beauty than Leo Messi.
When Michael Jordan retired for the first time, at the peak of his powers, Bulls head coach Phil Jackson told him he had a gift for basketball like Michaelangelo had for painting, and that to walk away from it would be to deprive the world of that "pure genius." The same concept applies to Messi, and for soccer lovers, the artistic metaphor is even more apt. To lose Messi, at 29 years old, from the international game – where the World Cup is the globe’s most prominent sporting event – would be for all of us to lose.
Regardless if you think Messi quitting is more a poor reflection on his character, to set a precedent where the pressure and hate and insatiability of fans and media can help convince – if not directly cause – an amazing player to just stop playing is a sad and dangerous and self-destructive precedent. Embrace debate, sure; but also enjoy genius. Let’s not find ourselves left only with trolling tweets and contrived contrarianism.
I don’t love or hate Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James or Michael Jordan, or bestow on any of them some arbitrary favorite-player-ever crown. But I sure do love watching them play, and I sure don’t want to not see Messi wearing blue and white at the World Cup in two years.
Oh, and I sure as hell hate penalty kicks.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.