In sport, we the viewing public are suckers for narratives. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Thus, we are moved when the prodigal son who left his hometown to take his talents to south beach comes back to win, almost single-handedly, a title for his hometown franchise, their first in 52 years. We are riveted by the story of the ballboy at a World Cup semifinal who wanted to play for his country and win the World Cup and how he had to persevere 22 years into his career before finally triumphing, fittingly, perhaps at the very same venue. And we are overjoyed when a 5000-1 outsider shocks and upends the existing world order to win a hard fought title. They are all wonderful narratives – uplifting, redemptive and life affirming. They also have one other template in common – The Hero’s Journey.
In history, popular culture, and of course, sports, the monomyth of this hero’s journey or quest is a timeless storytelling trope, where a hero conquers odds and ends his journey with a definitive reward. Think of Lord Of The Rings, where Frodo had to take on immense challenges to fulfill his destiny of destroying the One Ring. Destiny – that’s another popular narrative trope we use in the hero’s journey. And primed by this, we consider anything less a betrayal. Take the case of Lionel Messi and his decision to call it quits from international football after a heartbreaking loss to Chile in the Copa America final. I have been an Argentina fan for longer than Messi has been alive, and I am sure it hurts him acutely that not only have Argentina not been able to win a major title since 1993, but also that Messi himself has been projected as the talisman in at least four such tournaments where they have fallen short. So, his call, taken, one imagines, under extreme pain, has been ridiculed and criticised in equal measure and the commonest adjective used to sum it up has been “quitter”.
The general feeling was that Messi, rather than persevering like, say, a Sachin Tendulkar (for the World Cup), or a Roger Federer (for an Olympic gold) chose the easy way out and just gave up. The assessment is coloured by our expectations of the so called Hero’s Journey – that there has to be an achievement at the end of it, otherwise the hero is, well, not really a hero. Or, in the case of a sportsman, there is immediately a question mark on their potential status as an all time great. The same narrative played out for the Golden State Warriors (who created an NBA record in finishing the regular season 73-9, the best W-L ever) but then lost a 7-game NBA Finals series to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The hate spewed at Steph Curry, the MVP of the NBA season by unanimous vote (the first time ever the award had a unanimous winner) is symptomatic of how easily we are ready to dump a hero the moment his or her trajectory starts going off the narrative we are used to.
Sport, first and foremost for me, is about joy. Watching once in a generation talent like a Messi, Tendulkar, Federer and Curry is not about counting what they win along the way (that is actually incidental) but about getting swept up in the joy of watching something close to perfection manifest itself on teh court or the playing field. On that front, Messi needs no advocation. And as far as Argentina’s story of losing three straight finals (World Cup 2014, Copa America 2015, Copa America 2016) in almost exactly the same way with Messi in the team goes, perhaps the fact that they were goalless in each of those matches (which, by the way, all went to extra time) needs closer scrutiny. Messi seems to have had a deep set resentment of how he has been used in the national team for a long while now, the Copa Centenario final and that penalty miss in the shootout were just the straw that broke that camel’s back. Messi has always been seen as an outsider in the Argentine team given his history of moving to Spain as a boy to get hormone treatment and growing up playing football at the Barca academy and then for Barcelona.
Argentina likes its heroes homegrown, like Diego Maradona was. He did go to Europe but not before dazzling in the Argentinian league where he got noticed with Boca Juniors, a club where he returned to play his last match in 1997. Maradona has been among those calling for Messi to rescind his decision to retire but there is one key aspect to consider here. In the lead up to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the tournament that would make me an Argentina fan, Diego Maradona was facing a bevy of personal problems as well as issues within the team (Daniel Passarella, who he replaced as captain was particularly miffed at his attitude). As Jimmy Burns writes in “Maradona: The Hand Of God” that Argentina’s success in that tournament was down to “the ability of Maradona to persevere through his own personal crisis for the duration of the tournament.” When left alone with the game he loved, Paulo Pauletti, an Italian journalist observed that Maradona seemed “full of strength, resolution and youthful energy.” That’s probably because Maradona, as far as the game went, had immense support from adoring hordes back home in Argentina.
Maybe the joy has just been snuffed out for Messi. Tendulkar kept on playing as long as he did because he loved playing the game and it was evident in his performances and his demeanor on the pitch. The same goes for Roger Federer. The constant scrutiny and criticism of Messi and casual accusations of him not really being Argentinian and thus not giving his 100% for the Albicelestes must have got to him at some point. He seemed a pained figure in the latest Copa Final, his shoulders drooping under that invisible burden of the double edged sword of unreasonably high expectations. To be sure he has created those in the first place by being ridiculously good, or as the website FiveThirtyEight called him “impossible“, but what good is a great if he or she isn’t allowed to revel in the joy that they help bring? Steven Gerrard, a footballer far too aware of the burden of a hero’s journey, recently wrote about the English football team that they seemed paralysed by a “culture of fear” which is why they often fail in major tournaments. The same applies to Messi. And while we as the spectators want the hero’s journey to fit our format because as fans we are wedded to a narrative, maybe Messi is content with giving up. The lack of a supportive atmosphere in a national team and association beset by corruption and leadership issues and rabid fans certainly doesn’t help. In Lord Of The Rings, Frodo almost gave up quite a few times, only to be egged on by his good friend Sam. But in Messi’s case he seemed doomed to bear the burden alone.
Maybe it is time for us to jettison the hero’s journey template we so readily bring out, and accept that often in life, there are a lot of detours, and the one who takes the path less travelled is not necessarily any less of a hero.