Lionel Messi is drenched. In sweat. In despair. In agony. In bewilderment.
He had missed a gilt-edged chance to seal his team’s victory. Argentina are leading a goal to nil in a crucial Copa America tie against Qatar. Three points would seal a place in the knockout stages of the tournament but Messi knows a one-goal-lead is too thin a foundation for his empire of hope.
Surely not after what had transpired at Anfield against Liverpool in the Champions League. Certainly not after the three final-day disappointments in international tournaments between 2014 and 2016.
What was disheartening was not the miss itself. Yes, it was what the internet generation would describe ‘GIF-worthy’. But it was the nature of the chance – a pull-back from the left flank for Messi’s late run to charge onto – something Messi is expected to devour, even blindfolded.
And it was all clockwork. A typical Messi-esque surge of pace, aided by his low centre of gravity, helps him evade his marker. He had scored thousands of these in matches and practice sessions. He will score plenty of these in the future. It is a movement locked away in the tiny cells of the cerebellum as muscle memory.
Except, this one time, he couldn’t apply the finishing touches to the move. A miscue. A chance gone missing. Qatar are still in the game.
He looks agonizingly at the pitch. Yes, the surface had a role to play – the uneven bounce had affected Messi’s precision. The grounds have generally been below par in the tournament especially in Salvador and Belo Horizonte – two of Argentina’s venues in the group stages.
But this wasn’t just about the bounce. This was a man who didn’t want to face anyone. Not the crowd. Not his teammates. A player who has spent most of the recent Copa looking down on the pitch or looking at the skies.
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Forget ‘GOAT’ status, overlook Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons and freeze a country’s hopes for a moment. This is a tired individual. A closer analysis of Messi’s miss reveals how his body shape lacked the necessary angles to keep the ball down. It was a miss even before the odd bounce. An uncharacteristic mistake from arguably the greatest footballer ever. A mistake that has origins in fatigue – both mental and physical. In literary terms, he is Ernst Hemingway’s old man in the sea – exhausted but hooked to the ‘big fish’ idea of delivering silverware.
What is too much?
The question is — Do we not want the best of players playing the best of football in international tournaments anymore? A deflated Messi is just a representation of a football world facing what looks like an endless summer. Players, some of them who played more than 50 matches this season, are now being asked to cut short their holidays to perform for their national teams. And it is starting to look like the perennial supply for us audience is coming at the cost of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion of players.
In late 2018, a tired, 21-year-old Alexander Zverev made a casual admission that sparked a huge debate in the tennis world.
“I haven’t felt my best in, like, two months, to be honest,” said Zverev, who was having a slight blip in form after winning three ATP 1000 tournaments in two years. “The issue is that our season is way too long. We play for 11 months a year. That’s ridiculous. No other professional sport does that.”
Some agreed with Zverev that it was too much. While others pointed out how it was probably worse in the 90s when Grand Slams ended in December. But most importantly it showed how lawn tennis had at least tried to acknowledge the fatigue factor.
Football is at the risk of going the opposite route. The UEFA Nations Cup drew a lot of criticism after played looked tired. “If we don’t learn to deal with our players in a better way, competition-wise, then it is the only chance to kill this wonderful game,” weighed in Liverpool Jurgen Klopp, calling the Nation’s Cup ‘the most senseless tournament’. The African Nation’s Cup means the likes Mohamad Salah and Sadio Mane, two players who had an extremely long season due to Liverpool’s Champions League run, are now expected to propel their national teams forward in the continent’s greatest international competition.
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The Copa America has not been very different either with teams finding it difficult to get going. In fact, it has been players who have had relatively short seasons at their clubs, such as Chile’s Alexis Sanchez and Brazil’s Dani Alves, who have performed admirably in the tournament.
Redefining international football
With playing surfaces below par, attendance at stadiums an all-time low, and players looking like they have been compelled to be on the field, it is important for us to wonder what significance a tournament like Cop America has any more.
In the bygone era, Copa was a big hit because it paved the way for new footballers to make a mark in the international arena thereby attracting a host of scouts from across the globe to the tournament. But with scouting network reaching never-seen-before heights, and with agencies providing detailed information of practically all the footballers in the world, the sheen is off a tournament like Copa.
FIFpro, the players’ union, has recommended “an urgent implementation of a mandatory rest period of at least four weeks in the off-season” for all the players, but with football clubs signing up more commercial deals, and constantly developing more competitions to extract more revenue, the players will continue to be pushed to the brink.
One solution to the problem would be to limit the number of teams in the leagues but stakeholders are concerned about the loss of money due to reduced broadcast. Another option would be to play the qualification rounds for Copa during the season and starting with the knockout stages immediately after the players’ league commitments get over.
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With calls for a better environment for the emotional and physical well-being of footballers getting louder, FIFA and their continental confederations will be forced to look at the issue, hopefully, more urgently.
Messi’s Argentina has progressed despite the star’s off-colour performances and has set up an exciting semifinal date with hosts Brazil. But the time being it is important we forget the quintessential question of whether this will be Messi’s summer. The truth is, he probably will have a few more chances of winning silverware considering there is a Copa America tournament almost every other year these days. The larger question that should be clouding the football world in this make-or-break summer should be — will FIFA will let these never-ending football seasons be the norm from now on?