Overworked Messi risking early burn-out

“We have to learn how to play both with and without Messi,” says Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza.

Lionel Messi

Argentina's Lionel Messi salutes before the start of a 2018 World Cup qualifier Source: Getty Images

International football should be grateful that the first part of his phrase still applies.

Lionel Messi, of course, announced his retirement from playing for Argentina after a penalty shoot out defeat to Chile in the final of the Copa Centenario at the end of June.

A few days later I expressed on this site the hope that, rather than the usual comparison with Diego Maradona, on this occasion Messi would follow in the footsteps of Pele.

The great Brazilian declared, after being brutally kicked out of the 1966 competition, that he would play no further part in FIFA World Cups.

Thankfully, for the game and for his own legacy, he had a rethink, and went out on a magnificent high note in Mexico 1970. First, though, he took two years out of the international game.

Lionel Messi soon realised that he did not have the same luxury.

The crowded, ultra-competitive nature of the contemporary South American calendar did not permit him to take a sabbatical.

Some floated the idea of Messi returning in time for the Russia 2018 World Cup, the competition that could mark his final definitive statement as an international footballer.

But there was an obvious problem behind this way of thinking. If Messi were to take an extended break now, there is no guarantee that Argentina would make it through to the finals.

And so if he really wanted to play at Russia 2018, he had no choice but to reverse his decision to retire and help his team-mates across the line.
This was made abundantly clear in the recent two rounds of World Cup qualifiers earlier this month.

Argentina were at home to Uruguay, who were top of the table and full of swagger as they lined up at full strength for the first time in the campaign, with defensive linchpin Diego Godin and attacking spearhead Luis Suarez at last on the field together.

Argentina won the game 1-0, and the victory was achieved because they could count on Lionel Messi.

He scored the only goal, wriggling like a little eel (to borrow the marvellous phrase by which BBC radio commentator Brian Butler described the start of Maradona’s epic second goal against England in 1986) to find space that did not appear to be there before shooting past the Uruguayan keeper.

Argentina probably should have substituted Messi in the second half. But they had Paulo Dybala sent off shortly before the interval, and the continued presence of Messi on the field acted as a break on Uruguay’s all out attack.

Messi, though, had taken too much out of himself and was not fit for the trip to Venezuela five days later. Without him, it was a different story.

The limitations of Argentina’s defensive unit were cruelly exposed, they went two goals down before rallying to draw the game.

That was the eighth round of the marathon qualification campaign. Messi has missed five matches – in addition to the Venezuela game he was injured for the first four rounds.

Argentina have won all three of the games he has played. Their record in the five matches he has missed is not nearly so impressive; one win, three draws and a defeat (at home to Ecuador).

And they will be without him twice more – the injury he suffered against Atletico Madrid rules him out of the next two rounds, the dangerous trip to face Peru, and the home game against the combative Paraguayans.

Edgardo Bauza will certainly hope that Messi is fit and firing for the following fixture – the trip to Brazil in mid-November. But that is now out of his hands. It depends on what happens with his club.

“Barcelona send us messages,” said Bauza, “asking us to take care of Messi. But they don’t ever taken care of him. He plays in all the matches. I don’t believe any more in Barcelona’s medical exams.”

Messi is caught up in this tug of war between the demands of club and international football.
It is worth remembering that Barcelona’s 2015/2016 season fell apart in a couple of crucial weeks in early April – immediately after, for the first time in the campaign, their all-South American forward line of Messi, Neymar and Suarez had been back across the Atlantic taking part in World Cup qualifiers.

And it has also been clear that Messi’s form in international tournaments has suffered from end of club season burn out. Everyone is trying to squeeze the last bit out of the toothpaste tube.

It is no wonder that a player in his position occasionally flirts with the idea of international retirement.

In general the South Americans make sacrifices (especially in terms of travelling time) to play for their national teams that would probably be considered too much by many Europeans.

Is Messi shortening his top class career by taking on so much responsibility for both club and country?
It is a worrying thought. The international game receives a much needed boost from the continued presence of football’s biggest star.

And it leaves us with a lesson similar to the one which Edgardo Bauza is trying to learn with the Argentina team.

We football fans all need to make sure we are taking full advantage of the spectacle with Lionel Messi.

Before too many years we will have to get used to a game without him.

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Published 24 September 2016 at 8:13pm
By Tim Vickery