Last Saturday, FC Barcelona cruised to a routine victory over Real Betis by a score of 4-1. On paper, it seemed like a typical contest in Spain’s La Liga. Barcelona was able to extend its unbeaten start to the 2013-2014 season and made easy work of the bottom team in the league. However, one massive incident during the first half could change the rest of the club season and even potentially this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. In the 21st minute, four-time FIFA Ballon d’Or Lionel Messi was subbed off with a leg injury.
The world’s best player was obviously in pain and now will face his third stint on the sideline this season. During the match, Messi injured his hamstring and will miss six to eight weeks. When we look at world-class athletes, we often think of them as superhuman and are not tied down by the limitations we mortals face on a daily basis. Messi is considered the best player in the world and the expectations he plays with put him on a pedestal that makes him seem much taller than his 5-foot-7 frame. Messi has shown us some of the best play of any single player and team in the history of soccer, making it difficult to watch him suffer and hurt. However, Messi’s recent struggles with fitness and form have been a long-time coming and could play a big part in the near future of the sport.
Messi’s injury problem could be easily blamed to the ridiculous amount of games he’s played in recent years, and the amount of traveling he has had to do during that time. Many players take a much needed break after the long season, but Messi was unable to take any sort of a break, despite missing much of the end of the 2012-2013 season with a hamstring injury suffered in April. Messi’s new year started in the beginning of June where he travel across the Atlantic Ocean to compete with the Argentina national team for World Cup Qualifying matches. Messi then was hosting his “Messi and Friends” series of charity matches. The three matches, which took place over the course one week, were played in Medellin, Colombia, Lima, Peru, and Chicago, Ill. Then, Messi was back with his club team, Barcelona. Messi was immediately thrown into the fire of the new season by starting in each of Barcelona’s first five preseason matches, which took place all over the world including Munich, Germany; Oslo, Norway, Gdansk, Poland, Barcelona, Spain and Bangkok, Thailand.
Messi had logged thousands of miles in travel, as well as several hours of on-field play during a very busy and tiring preseason. The Argentinian showed that he failed to recover from the grueling season and in particular his hamstring injury. Messi, however, has been playing extensively for several years now. From the 2008-2009 season until last year, Messi has played in 51, 53, 55, 60, and 50 games, respectively, for his club alone. On the international stage, Messi has represented Argentina 49 times since 2009. Many of the games took place across an ocean in South America. Messi has remained injury-free for the past few years, allowing him to play in a majority of Barcelona’s contests. Also, Barcelona’s success has led Messi to participate in many more games will the added completions including the Champions League, Copa de Rey, UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup just to name a few. The Catalan Giants were a force in all competitions and Messi, along with Barcelona, couldn’t afford a break.
With all of the miles and matches under Messi’s belt, he has proved that even he could use a break. His form has dipped, highlighted by a four match goalless streak which ended with a converted penalty against Milan in the Champions League, and his fitness has taken a dive. When Messi was injured last season, Barcelona paid the price. Barcelona edged passed PSG in the Champions League quarterfinals with an injured Messi leading the team to victory despite failing to win either leg of the tie, but failed to make an impact against Bayern in the semifinals. Bayern humiliated Barcelona defeating the Spanish side 7-0 on aggregate. Barcelona won the league decisively on paper, but its play domestically and in Europe showed a weakness in the squad. With the acquisition of Neymar, Barcelona has another young, talented forward to score bundles of goals, but without the best player in the world healthy, Barcelona could struggle. Barcelona has failed to lose in all competitions even with Messi’s fluctuating health, but that can quickly change. As the Champions League gets into the knockout round and the title race in the league tightens, Barcelona will need all the Messi magic it can get. And in case you forgot, there’s the World Cup in June that Messi would just love to win with his Argentinian teammates. If Messi is going to continue to lead his club and country to trophies, his fitness and health need to be monitored. After all, he is only human.