Messi has never won a major trophy with the national team. Saturday’s Copa America final against Brazil might be his last good chance to do so.
Many of us are so busy being overwhelmed by Lionel Messi’s brilliance that we forget just how angry he is; every now and then, he helpfully reminds us. The most recent reminder came in the Copa America semifinal, when Argentina took on Colombia and found themselves in a penalty shootout to settle the tie. Colombia’s Yerry Mina, who is famed for breaking into dance when celebrating his goals, saw his penalty saved by Argentina’s Emiliano Martínez. As Mina’s face sank, Messi yelled from the halfway line: “Dance now! Dance now!”
Messi is not readily associated with rage, and yet there the rage was, tearing itself out of his throat, his mouth a burning abyss. And then we knew it again: that Messi loathes two things above all else. He despises losing, and he despises the passage of time. That night against Colombia, he was faced with both.
Thanks largely to the devious genius of Martínez, who outtalked and outthought his opponent’s penalty takers, Argentina prevailed and will face Brazil in Saturday’s final. Brazil are a better team and have superior squad depth, but, well, Argentina have Messi. And, even by his standards, he is in extraordinary form. He has scored four goals at this tournament and created five others, meaning that he has been directly involved nine of the 11 times that Argentina have found the net. These days, when we see an athlete consumed by such a singular purpose, we say that they compete as if they are possessed. In much older times, they referred to it as “a divine fury.” This weekend, Messi will need to be more divine and furious than ever.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have long known about Messi’s anger. It is right there in plain sight, and two particular moments stand out. The first came from a story Thierry Henry told about when Messi, with whom he played at Barcelona, got fed up with the coach’s refusal to award a free kick in a training session. Messi demanded the ball from his own goalkeeper, then proceeded to run through the entire opposing team and score—a team that contained some of the best defenders in world football. The second came in April 2017, when Barcelona faced Real Madrid in what was their last chance that season to deny their rivals the league title. At the very end of that thrilling match, with the score tied at 2-2, Messi strode to the edge of Madrid’s penalty area and sent a glorious, swirling strike into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. Tearing off his shirt, he ran over to the Madrid supporters, then turned his shirt around and held it aloft with both hands so they could read his name on the back.
In context, it is probably one of the angriest celebrations of all time. It is definitely one of the most intense. Showing the opponent’s fans the name on the back of your shirt is something that you might do as a teenage athlete when announcing yourself to the world for the first time. But showing them your name when they know full well who you are? When your name has dominated hours of fearful discussion throughout the week preceding the game? That is swagger of a different level. That is telling them: “Behold, I am your long-awaited nightmare, and I have come to pass.”
Against Brazil, Argentina are hoping that this Messi will come to pass. Given his recent form, there is no reason he should not. He is coming off yet another exceptional La Liga season, in which he led all players in several statistical categories, including most goals, most chances created, most successful dribbles, and most touches in the opposition area. Yet one statistic stands out above all: most fouls suffered. In 35 games in the La Liga season, Messi won 99 free kicks for being fouled, a rate of almost three per game. Football is a strange kind of sport where being kicked by your opponents is one of the ultimate compliments, since they can think of no other way to stop you. And Messi has been taking a kicking for years, both actual and metaphorical: This relentless onslaught, which he has borne largely in silence, is one of the unspoken costs of greatness.
He has not always borne it lightly. Five years ago, pained and frustrated by Argentina’s failure to win an international championship since the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing, Messi retired from the national team. While many people criticized him for turning his back on his country, for many others it was the first time that they grasped his depth of feeling for this team. It is odd to think that someone who has represented Argentina 148 times—recently breaking the record for appearances previously held by Javier Mascherano—should have had his passion for his country so thoroughly questioned. Yet Messi has never been judged by mere mortal standards, and never will be. He dominates our sporting landscape. Comparing most other footballers to him is like comparing an office block to the Pyramids of Giza.
Through all of this, he has been fueled by a competitive desire that is perhaps unmatched. The last time Argentina met Brazil with anything at stake was in the 2019 Superclásico de las Américas, when Messi’s team prevailed by a single goal—scored by Messi, of course. He is eminently capable of doing the same again, and thanks to one of the most famous scenes in modern film, we will understand what is motivating him. Naturally, the scene arrives toward the end of The Avengers, as the band of heroes are being assailed on all sides in the middle of New York by a vast and advancing alien army. Captain America, seeing a particularly large alien soaring down the street toward them, asks Bruce Banner for help. “Now might be a really good time for you to get angry,” he suggests. “That’s my secret, Cap,” says Banner, before transforming into the Hulk and laying waste to the approaching enemy with a single punch. “I’m always angry.”
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