When Lionel Messi slowly trudged off the pitch at the Vicente Calderón in a Liga match for Barcelona last month, there wouldn’t have been many who did not wish his swift return to the pitch. A few weeks went on, and Messi hadn’t played a minute for both Barca and the Argentina national team. His absence was been keenly felt, on both sides of the Atlantic.
When the No.10 finally returned to action for Barcelona as a second-half substitute, he sent the ball to the back of the net within just three minutes -- Simply astonishing. “For me, to see Messi on the pitch is always good news”, said Barca manager Luis Enrique when Messi overturned his decision to retire from Argentina duty in August.
And for those looking at numbers to justify Messi’s about turn on his retirement decision need to go no further than look at Argentina’s recent run of results without La Pulga. The South American World Cup qualifying campaign is a gruelling one where ten teams slog it out for four automatic qualification places and one playoff spot. Argentina sit fifth after 10 games, and although qualification is well within their reach, they have lost considerable ground in their quest after collecting just two points from their last three games, all without Messi.
That is where a Messi-less Argentina can be compared to a directionless ship which has no captain to steer it in the right path. Without Messi, Argentina have collected only seven points from seven games compared to nine in three with the number 10.
The numbers speak for themselves. At Barca as well, the impact of Messi’s absence has been felt. There is a sense of a lack of attacking focal point for the Blaugrana without Messi, and every new combination tried by Enrique has sat as a pale representation of a Barca side with Messi in it.
Messi’s decision to retire from international duty in the immediate aftermath of Argentina’s Copa America final loss earlier this year sparked a series of reactions across the world. Argentina was divided, but it persuaded enough for Messi to reverse his decision. Even that caused much uproar, but whatever the world says, a team with Messi in it immediately becomes a better unit than a team without him.
The numbers are there to prove. While Messi didn’t need Argentina’s atrocious run of results to prove his importance to the Albiceleste, his absence, as Enrique said, does football no good.
Argentina will hope Messi will be back to lead them in the remaining eight qualifiers. Despite a managerial change that saw ex-Barca manager Gerardo Martínez replaced by Edgardo Bauza, it is the Messi factor that seems to be of greater significance to Argentina. His undoubted quality and leadership spur his team-mates on, both for his club and his national team.
In a team sport as football, it is always a folly to emphasise a single individual rather than the collective. But in Messi’s case, his mere presence heightens the collective, as has been proved. His contribution to the collective transcends the quantifiable boundaries.
Messi is at that stage of his career where he can’t last the rigours of a full season. His various injuries in the past few seasons have derailed both Barca and Argentina, but his importance to his teams hasn’t gone down with it.
Messi remains, and will remain for a considerable amount of time, the beating heart of both Barca and Argentina -- The greatest footballer of all time.