Kick back and embrace Lionel Messi's heel turn

Lionel Messi has not held back in criticizing the Copa America organizers and referees in recent days. (Getty)
Lionel Messi has not held back in criticizing the Copa America organizers and referees in recent days. (Getty)

For a guy who’s as introverted and inoffensive as Lionel Messi, these past few days have shoved aside the norm.

First, he called the officiating “bulls---” in Argentina’s semifinal loss to Brazil at Copa America. Then on Saturday, he was sent off with just the second red card of his career during Argentina’s victory over Chile in the third-place match. Afterward, Messi refused to accept his medal.

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Then he really fired up his take cannon.

“Maybe what I said recently had an impact,” Messi said of the red card, according to AS Argentina. “ ... Maybe this was ordered [from above] and I ended up suffering because of what I said.”

“Maybe this was ordered [from above]!”

“We don't need to be part of the corruption that we've suffered at this tournament” Messi continued. “We don't need to be part of the lack of respect we've suffered during this Copa America. We could have gone further, but they didn't let us be in the final.”

“They didn’t let us be in the final!!”

“The Copa is set up for Brazil,” Messi finished. “Hopefully the referees and the VAR won't influence things and they let Peru compete, but I think that's unlikely.”

“I think that’s unlikely!!!!”

The rest of his answers, according to AS, praised his teammates and their performance at this Copa, which represents his latest failure to end a trophy drought for Argentina that now stretches over a quarter-century.

It’s not a great look for Messi, calling the tournament corrupt and the referees wrong. It’ll damage his reputation with fans, who might have already made their minds up anyway, and it’ll further contaminate the taste in Argentina’s mouth after this summer.

Here’s the thing, though: It might also finally unite opinion on him.

Lionel Messi seemed more upset with outside forces than he was with Chile's Gary Medel. (Getty)
Lionel Messi seemed more upset with outside forces than he was with Chile's Gary Medel. (Getty)

No matter what you think of Messi, we can all agree this is fun, right? Did you even know what Messi sounded like before this tournament? For years, the only thing that spilled out of that genius brain of his was imagination on the pitch. Now we’re getting some honest-to-goodness personality, too.

Regardless of whether you believe Messi is the greatest soccer player of all time — count this author in that camp, by the way — you can’t deny it’s entertaining, can you?

It works on every level. It works as catharsis, for people who are sick of seeing Messi drag subpar Argentine sides further than they should go. It works as vindication, for those who would rather back Pele or Cristiano Ronaldo in the greatest debate and can dangle international trophies because of it.

It works as a heel turn, which will surely draw out the tsk-tskers who lit up the United States women’s national team for deigning to show emotion this World Cup. It also works as valid criticism, because launching conspiracy theories against confederations and referees is as low-rent as anything this side of intentionally injuring your opponent.

Be disappointed in Messi if you want, but if that’s the case I’d be more disappointed your notion of athletes’ conduct hasn’t atrophied like the rest of ours in the digital age.

That’s not a dig at them, either. Athletes are human beings. They get as pissed about calls as you do. They enjoy their successes as you do, and frequently more.

This is the price of connection, the toll at the access gateway. Social media and cameras everywhere have almost trained expectation out of us. They’re not responsible for Messi’s routine media availability at this Copa, but they do render his emotions more palatable.

The only sad thing is, we might not get to see it again. Who knows if Messi will join Argentina for next summer’s Copa America?

And don’t forget why that one is being held. It’s so CONMEBOL, South America’s governing body, can get the tournament on an even-year schedule. This comes after holding a special one-off in 2016 to celebrate the competition’s 100-year anniversary.

That means we’ll have had four Copas in six years. There’s no filter to soccer’s lavish subsistence. It’s all gloriously stupid.

Don’t be mad at Messi for expressing himself in the same vein. Just revel in it.

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