As sports fans, it’s easy to look at our favorite leagues in their own isolated bubbles. If you like the NBA, for example, it stands alone. Other leagues may have similarities, but nothing compares to the Association and its unique challenges.
Lionel Messi and Inter Miami may have poked a hole in that thought process, though.
While load management has irked NBA commissioner Adam Silver, fans are theoretically the ones with the most to lose. Whether you’re tuning into a game on TV or shelling out big bucks to watch in person, no one wants to see their favorite player on the sidelines. It’s disappointing and, for some supporters, can feel downright disrespectful.
At the end of the day, though, we’re dealing with humans. And rest, for better or worse, simply has to be a part of pro sports.
Let’s break things down.
Messi is Fatigued and Will Miss the Next Miami Match
Ever since moving to MLS, Messi has lived up to the hype and looked like a real-life superhero. On Wednesday, September 21, however, he looked a bit more human.
The Argentine superstar left the field after only 37 minutes; that was disappointing, but it didn’t stop his club from cruising to a 4-0 victory over Toronto FC. After the game, manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino chalked things up to fatigue.
“They [Messi and Jordi Alba, who also left the game early] trained normally and we felt like they were ready to play,” Martino said through an interpreter, according to Ross Devonport’s ESPN write-up. “I don’t believe it’s anything new or anything worse than what they had before. It’s fatigue. We don’t think it’s a muscular injury. That’s also from a conversation that I just had with [Messi]. But we have to continue being careful and we’ll look at him the next few days.”
At this point, both of the former Barcelona men will sit out Inter Miami’s next match. Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see.
“There is no chance they will be there on Sunday. I know we have a final to play [next Wednesday] but they won’t go near the pitch if they can’t play,” Martino added.
Messi, for All of His Heroics, is Human
As mentioned above, it can be easy to look at Lionel Messi as something of a superhero. Despite his seemingly ordinary stature, the Argentine star is one of the greatest players to ever set foot on a soccer pitch; you could also argue he is the singular GOAT, but that’s a conversation for a different day.
With that being said, though, he’s still a human being.
At this point, Messi is 38 years old. Based on FB-Reference’s data, he’s played nearly 800 club matches and more than 110 Argentine national team matches across his career. While no one is going to shed a tear over a global star putting in around 900 days of work, especially when each game is 90 minutes, that does take a toll. And that’s not even considering the physical toll of training or less-tangible burdens, like relocating to a new country and being treated like the savior of both a franchise and an entire league.
Again, that’s not to suggest that Messi is some charity case who needs our pity. He’s rich and famous and living what many sports fans would consider to be a dream. Fame and fortune, however, can only do so much to deal with fatigue. Add a busy stretch of the schedule into the mix—beyond Messi’s previous engagements, which included international duty with Argentina, Miami is entering a stretch of six matches in 17 days—and something has to give.
Is it easy to say playing soccer is kid’s stuff and he should tough it out? Is it easy to say when people are paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket that he should do it for the fans and take the pitch?
While the temptation is to say yes, that’s not really an external decision. If the superstar is fatigued, which it certainly seems like he is given that he’s missed games for both club and country, then who are we to tell him to get back out there?
To be clear, fans are essential to professional sports. That’s especially true in global soccer, where situations like the proposed European Super League have come across as commercial ventures that run counter to the feelings of actual supporters. With that being said, though, having sentiment dictate team selection is a bridge too far.
And, as we established at the top of this piece, it’s not an issue that’s limited to the MLS. Adam Silver’s NBA has attempted to crack down on load management with new rules promising fines for teams who rest stars in big games or hold multiple stars out on a given night. There are, of course, exemptions for injuries and players over 35 or who have played a significant amount of minutes, but the underlying point is clear: If you’re a big name, you largely have to play.
And while that’s understandable from a business perspective, it overlooks an inescapable reality. At the risk of being Pollyanna, these pro athletes are all people, too.
That isn’t going to change, and the sooner we can all understand that, the easier it will be to stop fighting an uphill battle against concepts like fatigue.
If Lionel Messi, one of the world’s best athletes, can simply run out of gas, anyone can.