It’s the cliched sports movie plot line we’ve all seen a thousand times. The gifted prodigy. They are the chosen one who will lead their team to greatness and glory, and at first, success seems almost preordained. They reach the final championships, and initially they are brilliant, leading their team to victories and triumph. But then things start to unravel. The brilliance begins to fade, and they begin to struggle. Somehow, they cobble together the victories needed to reach that all important final, and when the day finally arrives, they enter the arena with the weight of the world on their shoulders. This is their moment, if only they can reach out and take it.
The game is tense, and both sides valiantly battle for control. Our prodigy does everything they can, but is rewarded with near misses and lost opportunities. And then, in the dying moments, their opponents strike, pull ahead, and all seems lost. The fans are defeated, the commentators declare victory, and our prodigy looks lost. That is, until the final seconds, when they are granted one last shot; the last play of the game to show the world what they’re made of, silence their critics once and for all, and prove that they have what it takes to be called the best. The ball is set, the whistle is blown, and it’s kicked towards the net. But it sails over the top. A miss. The prodigy has failed. This is not how it was supposed to end.
Like most of the world, I was enraptured with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The past month has been filled with more drama and heart pounding excitement than anything Hollywood has ever produced, and the exuberant joy of victory, and in turn the heartbreaking despair of defeat, have been both incredible and unbearable to witness. Between Luis Suarez’s post-bite banishment, Robin van Persie’s flying fish header of a goal, Brazil’s shocking defeat at the hands of eventual winner Germany, and the best theatrics this side of the Oscars with all of the diving on display, this tournament had it all, and it played out live on the world’s largest stage.
I wasn’t particularly attached to any one country, so I often found myself rooting for the perceived underdogs in any given match (go Costa Rica!), but there was one person in particular who I wanted to win more than anything: Argentina’s captain, Lionel Messi. Long considered one of the greatest footballers of all time, Messi has won pretty much every award possible in the footballing world, including the Ballon d’Or four times, 3 Champion’s League titles, 6 La Liga titles, and 2 Club World Cup titles. He has scored up to 5 goals in a game, smashed every scoring record in sight, rarely dives or argues with the officials, constantly gives up scoring chances if a teammate is in a better position, and whenever possible, publicly credits those teammates for his success. But he hasn’t won the World Cup. According to the constant stream of commentary in the lead up to this year’s tournament, Messi’s accomplishments meant nothing without hoisting that fabled trophy, and according to footballing experts, if he didn’t lead his team to victory in Brazil, Messi’s legacy would be forever tarnished. As Argentina’s captain, it was all on him, whether fairly or not.
By now, everyone who watched the World Cup knows how this story goes; of how Messi was brilliant in the group stage, but then faded in the knockout rounds. Argentina squeaked by Switzerland and Belgium, before taking out the Netherlands in penalty kicks; all while Messi failed to find the back of the net. Facing Germany in the final game, it seemed like everything was on the line for Argentina’s captain, with commentators wondering if this was the moment for him to finally step out of the shadow of his fellow countryman, Deigo Maradona, and join the ranks of footballing legends. As the game progressed, the German defense smothered Argentina’s attacks, and near misses by both Messi and Gonzalo Higuain will most likely haunt them forever. In the 113th minute, Mario Gotze’s brilliant goal put Germany ahead and all seemed lost. But then, in the dying seconds of the game, Messi was given a free kick at a perfect scoring distance from the German net. As he stood there, waiting to make his play, it looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. The referee blew his whistle, and, well, we all know how this ends.
I love sports, because watching a game unfold is like watching a story happen live before your eyes. The athletes who create these stories dedicate their lives to perfecting their craft, and we all delight in watching their journey from rookie to seasoned veteran happen before our eyes. When someone like Messi comes along; someone who is almost unnaturally gifted, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and be taken in by the possibility that we may be bearing witness to that elusive player of a generation. That one great talent who will inspire generations to come with their sporting heroics, and in our haste to anoint the next revered legend, we tend to forget that they are also human. Fallible and flawed, and while we may ask them to be perfect, they never are.
So this World Cup, I was cheering for Lionel Messi. Not Argentina, but their captain, because it was my hope that in winning the World Cup, he could finally be free of the criticism that has followed his career despite his unworldly accomplishments. I wanted him to lift that trophy and finally be able to leave behind the pressure an entire football-crazed nation has put on his shoulders since he was a teenager. I wanted him to win, because I am tired of his critics negating his spectacular achievements simply because of one trophy. But life is not a Hollywood movie, and sometimes the best can fail. When you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, even the strongest among us can get crushed.