Weight of the World

He stood alone on the pitch.

It made no sense that there should be so much pressure on him.

Lionel Messi is the best player in soccer. He’s a giant of professional football, the central figure in one of the most dominant and breathtaking club teams ever.

He’s already won an Olympic gold medal for his country.

In the last World Cup, he dominated group play by distributing perfect passes to his teammates. No, he didn’t score any goals, but Argentina stormed through to the quarter finals. It was an accomplishment for a team that had looked lost going into the Cup.

Yet, for reasons no one can fully explain, the sentiment on the streets of Argentina was that Messi, for all his greatness, still owed his country something.

Maybe it’s because Messi never really played for an Argentine club, having been sold by Newel’s Old Boys Club when he was a young teen to Barcelona in Spain. Maybe it’s because everyone compares him to Tevez.  Tevez wore the shirt of Boca Juniors, the most popular Argentine club, before moving on to greener professional pastures.

Mostly it’s just because when our teams fail, we blame our best players. It’s not fair. It’s rarely their fault. But that’s what we do.

So on Saturday night, Messi lined up to take the first penalty kick. Argentina and Uruguay had battled to a 1-1 tie through more than 120 minutes of play. It was perhaps the game of the year. Bitter rivals, world-class players, and a full tilt thriller with national glory on the line. Argentina was playing at home, favorites in the Copa America, the South American championship. Uruguay, the lone South American team to reach the World Cup semis in 2010, is in their own right a formidable opponent.

The referee delayed in preparing the ball for play, so Messi stood there, alone. His teammates embraced behind him. The crowd tight and anxious.

The whole nation could feel it.

Si no lo hace, le van a comer vivo.

If he doesn’t make it, they will eat him alive.

When the moment finally came, a nation held its breath as their not-so-favorite son burried the kick in the back of the net and unleashed a scream that could be heard all the way to Bariloche.

It was just the first kick. There were more to come. Argentina eventually lost 5-4 as Tevez, Saint Tevez, was the one weak link. Uruguay won a classic game, but everyone thought the same thought: at least they won’t blame this one on Messi. Of course they won’t blame this one on Messi. He was spectacular all night. His mate on the front line Higuain blew at least five legitimate scoring opportunities created by the brilliance of Messi. Messi made his kick and Tevez missed his. There was depression and disappointment on Saturday night, but on Sunday, the calm resignation of losing a brilliantly played match set in shame-free.

At least they won’t blame this one Messi.

I thought it. My friends thought it. The whole nation thought it.

For a few days it will be true. They won’t blame this one on Messi. It wasn’t his fault.

Oddly enough, perspective will fade with time. Come the next major international game, all Messi’s accomplishments and brilliance will be obscured by the piranhas in the press.

Messi’s never won for La Seleccion.

It doesn’t matter that it’s not true. It doesn’t matter that there’s a gold medal around his neck. it doesn’t matter how many UEFA titles Barca wins or how golden his boots are. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly he played Saturday night or that he stood alone with the weight of the world on him and converted his kick.

It doesn’t matter that he did his part. The team didn’t win. He’s the best player. It must be his fault. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. We’ll rewrite history to make it fit our memories.

I’ve seen it all before.