It's an unnatural combination – being an introvert and a sportsman. It does not matter whether you are at the pinnacle of the sport or if you are wearing a crumpled jersey in the inter-collegiate – It is weird.
The sportsfield is expected to be witness to the ultimate expressions of adrenaline. It is the arena of the modern gladiator – you do not just kill, you entertain. Artistry is fine, but you need to exude excesses of obvious belligerence. You are required to utter primal cries at the fall of an opponent, and weep tears of joy at hard-earned victories. Nothing less would do. And when you do not wear that heart on the sleeve, the questions arise no matter who you are. They first question your “leadership”, then they come after your “character”. In some, they would even dare to question your “patriotism”.
Few men have managed to straddle the two worlds, and in the light of the inherent struggles in that, none other spring to your mind faster than these two diminutive men - Sachin Tendulkar and Lionel Messi. Needless to say, both have largely shied away from the compulsory flair and flamboyance except with their on-field exploits. Neither had the rags-to-riches story that is so beloved of sports fans but still managed to capture our imaginations with their humble demeanor even under the glaring spotlight. Both were such early bloomers that they were mere kids when they were thrust onto the international scene. While Sachin had an extraordinarily long career, Messi looks set to have one – at least at the club. However, as an Indian whose worldview is always tinted with the cricket lens, one thing that stands out between the two is this – the World Cup. The one that Sachin won after a 22-year old penance and that still eludes Messi, and sadly may never come to fruition.
Lionel Messi is at that point right now in a sportsman's career where you ask yourself if you, after all that, have the desire to do the one thing you love – play. Everything he has devoted himself to has been called into question, but he may find the answer in Sachin's life because Sachin's story carried a similar arc not long ago – one filled with accusations and regular upheavels.
The biggest accusation was that Tendulkar allegedly put himself above the national team. That he took too long to get from the 90 to the 100, that he took too long to get to his 200 from 150, that he waited too long to get to his 100th 100. Sachin was so distressed by the attention to the individual milestone that he later begrudged all of it.
I was not thinking about the milestone, the media started all this; wherever I went, the restaurant, room service, everyone was talking about the 100th hundred. Nobody talked about my 99 hundreds. It became mentally tough for me because nobody talked about my 99 hundreds.
Messi faced a similar travail when he was stuck on the 499th career goal for eons, especially in the midst of Barcelona's worst slump. Eerily like Sachin, he happened to hit the landmark 500 in a losing cause against lowly Valencia not unlike Sachin's 100th 100 in the loss against Bangladesh.
While the instant reaction would be to dismiss these as preposterous, one needs to have played any sport of any kind just once in his life to understand the kernel of truth in this. Sport, at its core, is an expression of the self. It is the ability to detach oneself from all else and the will to test your ultimate limits. It so happens that you achieve this beside your team. But it is impossible and in fact imprudent to attempt to disassociate the individual from himself. The drive to excel as oneself and the inherent selfishness is what pushes them to greatness and all that matters is that it was in the benefit of the team.
The second argument leveled against both is that they do not perform at the biggest stage. While it is futile to attempt to educate the stubborn, one look at Sachin's record should have dispelled the effects of whatever potions these detractors were binging on. Sachin averages a phenomenal 52.3 at ICC tournaments and in knockouts, his average is still high at 48.7. He was the Player of the Tournament in that 2003 World Cup. But all that mattered to us eventually was that he failed. He failed in pursuit of an insurmountable 359-run target against one of the best bowling attacks the world has seen. He failed to last the first over.
Messi scored 4 goals in his 7 matches at the 2014 World Cup and was awarded the Best Player of the World Cup award. But that does not matter to us, does it? All that matters is that he failed in that final against a Germany that was collectively miles above Argentina. He failed to score once in 120 minutes.
One does not stop to understand why India in 2003 and Argentina in 2014 managed to reach that finale. If not for those 673 phenomenal runs or for those 4 goals and an assist, these two teams would have been assigned to the airport ages ahead. One wishes the pundits cared to read up on the concept of 'regression to the mean' before they picked up their pretty microphones and spouted their tirades of original criticism.
The third blot, that was for Sachin and is for Messi, is the lack of a World Cup in that crowded trophy cabinet. The answer is it does not matter. Until that day, April 2 in 2011, Sachin was never going to be accepted as the greatest-ever because “he never won the world cup, mate”. Everyone expected something magical to happen that night. The greatest bridesmaid story in cricket would finally reach its inevitable ending and everyone lived happily ever after and called Sachin the greatest. Did that follow?
As we waited with bated breath for the world to finally acknowledge the greatness of the God, the world changed not a bit. The haters remained haters, and the camps remained divided.
One trophy, however big it may be, does not change the legacy of a player, and Leo would be the better if he was not put on par with a certain player twice as flamboyant but not as talented as he was. Maradona may have won the World Cup for Argentina but he was never as consistent as Messi, and his career, always under the pall of controversies, ended in the ignominy of a forced retirement. As the inimitable Brit Jonathan Wilson puts it, “Only the Hand of God can separate Messi and Maradona.
Yet the oddity is that, in many ways, Messi's achievements outstrip those of Maradona. Times are different and comparisons often misleading, but Messi is more disciplined and more consistent.
One World Cup does not make you the 'Player of the Century' as millions of internet age kids unlike me found out in the early 2000s. Nor should the lack of it consign you to relegation from the vaunted club. History will judge Messi more favorably without the pregnant shadow of a World Cup trophy.
Leadership is another story. Neither is the greatest of orators, but Sachin, sadly, was a miserable captain – understandably. As if carrying the burden of a billion was not enough, the captaincy was thrust on him twice. And he failed twice – understandably. He did win Man of the Tournament awards, but it just was not enough. When he handed over the captaincy in 2000, Sachin was a relieved man, and it showed immediately on the field.
Messi definitely carries captaincy much better than Sachin. But once again his introversion does not help matters much. “His coaches and teammates didn't understand the aloof Messi, who once went to a team-building barbecue and never said a word, not even to ask for meat,” wrote Wright Thompson in ESPN.
Leading the team to two consecutive Copa Americas and a World Cup final should be testament enough. But it does not suffice for our generation brought up on blood-curdling cries by the gaffers mid-match and tales of dramatic motivational speeches at half-times. In fact, the only judges of a captain should be his teammates, and not armchair critics, and definitely not Maradona, whose ignominious doping episode brought an early end to his career.
The final test is something even the God cannot help Lionel Messi with – the test of patriotism. Sachin was not put under that test luckily – he had no Harvard-educated megalomaniac economists hunting him back then.
But Leo is not so lucky. It is utterly incomprehensible that the greatest player your nation has seen is questioned about the very basis of his commitment. However, Messi has been subjected to exactly that crude ritual – not giving him all for the country. In 2014, a website even managed to find a psychologist who claimed that Messi's mumbling of the national anthem was a sign of a lesser kind of patriotism.
The people from Argentina thought he was Spanish, and in the cafes and pool halls, they wondered why he always won championships for Barcelona but never for his own country.In Barcelona, Messi inspired the same reaction. People noticed he didn't speak Catalan and protected his Rosarino accent. He bought meat from an Argentine butcher and ate in Argentine restaurants.
“In many ways, he is a man without a country,” wrote Thompson.
It appears a bit too late when Argentina has belatedly discovered its love for its greatest hero. Airports are adorned with “Do not go” banners, and the President says he is “the greatest thing we have in Argentina”. But if Messi returns to the international arena, he would do well to remember the life of one man from across the globe – One World Cup does not change anything. You are still the greatest. He may yet attain that elusive trophy, but in the end it would not matter as much as what he has given the world already – more than a decade of his unparalleled genius.
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