When Leo Messi declared last night that he was done playing for Argentina in international competition, the first question on most people’s lips wasn’t What will Argentina do? or What is the World Cup without Messi? or even a simple Why? Instead, it was: Is he actually serious?
There’s good reason to think that he might not be. Messi wouldn’t be the first athlete who didn’t exactly mean goodbye when he said it. In April, Conor McGregor suddenly announced that he was finished with the UFC and retiring early, only to abruptly change his mind and unretire two days later. And earlier this month the UFC agreed to give him a longed-for rematch with Nate Diaz.
Messi’s announcement appears to be similarly calculated. He made his displeasure with the planning abilities of the Argentine Football Association known. Now, many think he is attempting to wring change out of a stubborn institution by doing what just a few years ago would have been unthinkable: threatening to quit and play club soccer exclusively.
The truth is that for athletes, retirement just isn’t what it used to be. When athletes retire these days — or at least, when they say they’re going to retire — it’s often not because they’ve met the achy knees, busted toes, and twanging ligaments that used to claim great players, who walked away only when they grew so tired and sore that they could not possibly go on. Farewells now are regularly mixed with considerations that go well beyond the practicalities of aging; retirement is no longer just a thing athletes do when they can’t keep going.
Consider the rash of players who have departed the NFL in the past few years: Marshawn Lynch, Chris Borland, and D’Brickashaw Ferguson are among the many who have exited the sport citing concerns about their health. (Months before the 10-year veteran announced his departure, Ferguson wrote an essay for Sports Illustrated claiming that the movie Concussion taught him that the risks of brain injury were much more serious than he previously believed.)
For every Calvin Johnson, who said last week that he left the NFL because he was tired of the grind, there’s a Lynch, who surely knew that there was money to be made outside the league, with his Beast Mode clothing line and a slew of endorsements. Is it mere coincidence that the running back who was known for shunning the media recently decided to grant an extensive, wide-ranging interview?
Today’s athletes have the power to dominate a news cycle in a way that their predecessors never could have imagined: With one tweet, video, or expletive-laden Facebook post, stars are able to twist the arms of powerful institutions.
So is Messi’s retirement for good? With the World Cup just two years away — and the prospect of an Argentine championship once again flickering in the distance — it seems unlikely. Besides, if he returns and the AFA still fails to clean up its act, Messi will have a shot at the most glorious farewell of all: the rage quit.