This has been a rather strange season for Lionel Messi.
As the Barcelona and Argentina captain finally heads away for an overdue but brief summer holiday, he will reflect on a long campaign which, on the plus side, saw him play some of the best football of his career to power Barcelona to the La Liga title with an 11-point margin over second-placed Atletico Madrid and a record 19 point gap to eternal enemy Real Madrid.
On the downside, however, Messi’s season suffered a finale which was nothing short of total disaster: in the last two months he has been powerless to prevent Barcelona exiting the Champions League in humiliating circumstances and then losing the Copa del Rey final, before suffering more international heartache with Argentina’s elimination from the Copa America at the semi-final stage against Brazil.
For the poisoned icing on top of the cake, Messi’s very last act of the 2018/19 campaign, of course, was receiving only the second red card of his career – and his first since 2005 – in a bust-up with Chile’s pitbull Gary Medel during Saturday night’s third-place Copa play-off.
The injustice of that dismissal, and Argentina’s perceptions of their overall mistreatment by Copa America officials, saw Messi head into his holidays on a very sour note, risking further disciplinary action by launching an uncharacteristically emotional tirade at the ‘corruption’ he believes exists within CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body.
For such a fierce competitor who takes his career so seriously, it’s clear that Messi will be inhabiting a dark place during the first few days of his short vacation, perhaps only alleviated by the merciless mocking he is bound to receive from his son Mateo, who revels in any opportunity to make fun of his poor father.
Before long, though, he will put those agonies behind him, consign them to the dustbin of the past and look forward to the future. Because that is what he has always done.
Yes, Messi has been here before. Even arguably the greatest footballer of all-time has regularly been forced to fight his way through some deeply depressing summer months before emerging into brighter days on the other side.
In 2006, for example, the young Messi was left distraught after finishing the season by being omitted by Barca boss Frank Rijkaard from the squad which claimed a Champions League final victory over Arsenal, followed quickly by another consignment to the bench as Argentina were beaten in the World Cup quarter-finals by Germany.
The summer of 2014 was even worse as Messi contemplated Argentina’s traumatic World Cup final defeat to Germany, coming hot on the heels of a season of downright failure with Barca and the tragic death of his much-loved former Barca coach and mentor, Tito Vilanova.
On both those occasions, and every other time Messi has been forced to confront serious setbacks and infuriating failures, he bounced back. He put his frustration behind him, focused on the future and got back to doing the thing he does best: scoring and creating goals.
Over the next few weeks and months, he will do that again.
Sure, the conclusion of the now-finished season will have left a sour taste in Messi’s mouth, and he will be deeply dissatisfied with the litany of disappointments he has encountered in the last couple of months.
There is also considerable doubt as to what the future holds at Barcelona. Will he spend next season playing alongside Luis Suarez? Or Antoine Griezmann? Or Neymar? Or Ousmane Dembele? Or some combination of the four? Will he perform on the right wing? Or as a false nine? Or a support striker? Or a deeper creative midfielder?
At the moment, he does not know the answer to those questions, and Barca’s evolution is fraught with danger.
But if you think those failures in the recent past and that uncertainty over the immediate future will have left Messi beaten, that he is a broken man and a spent force, then you obviously haven’t been paying much attention over the last 15 years.
Messi is made of strong stuff and he lives for this kind of challenge. He has something to prove, and he will prove it, just like always has done in the past. He’ll be back.
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