To: Lionel Andres Messi
From: Benjamin Morris, professional skeptic, sports researcher and Messi obsessive
Dear Mr. Messi,
Over the past half dozen years, you have been far and away the best player in the world’s most popular sport, but we know you’ve been having a bit of a rough time of late. You’ve been dealing with tax evasion charges. You’ve dealt with injuries, and fallen to third in scoring in La Liga. Your club team Barcelona was unable to repeat last year’s amazing treble after being knocked out of the UEFA Champions League in the quarterfinals.
And finally, following Argentina’s loss against Chile in the Copa America final – in which you missed a kick that may have been the difference in a penalty shootout – you seemed to indicate an inclination to retire from the Argentine national team:
It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over. I think this is best for everyone. First of all for me, then for everyone. . . . It’s very hard, but the decision is taken. Now I will not try more and there will be no going back.
We’re not entirely sure what you meant by this, and I hope by the time this letter reaches you, you’ll have relented. But, just in case: Retiring is a terrible idea.
Of course you don’t owe anyone anything, and you can do what you want. But here’s why you shouldn’t:
You missed a damn free throw.
Look, you screwed up. You missed a penalty kick that would have put Argentina ahead, and your team ended up losing. You also failed to put the ball on frame – thus violating the first rule of penalty kicking.
But let’s dispel the myth that penalty kicks are easy. In the top divisions of soccer (the Big Five leagues and major international tournaments) about 75 percent of the penalty kicks taken connect – similar to the rate at which free throws are made the NBA (76 percent in 2015-16). But even this partly masks their difficulty, as penalty kicks are generally taken by the designated (and typically best) penalty kicker on each team.
You’ve made about 78 percent of your penalty kicks, for both club and country. This is below the rate of some other top strikers like Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who have made around 85 percent each), but is above average overall. For comparison, LeBron James has made around 74 percent of his free throws in his career (below average in the NBA) — and just made 72 percent against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
High-leverage misses are painful — had LeBron missed his second straight free throw in the waning seconds of Game 7 and the Warriors tied the game, it would have been a disaster, percentages be damned. But percentages win out in the long run nonetheless, and following this miss, you’ve now made three of your four shootout shots for Argentina, perfectly in line with your career penalty kick conversion rate.
International play may not be as pretty, but you’re still the best at it
Another persistent myth in soccer is that you haven’t been as good for Argentina in international play as you’ve been for Barcelona in club play. While it’s true that the numbers you’ve put up at Barcelona have been mind-boggling, you’ve also played brilliantly for Argentina. To see just how much so, let’s look at some very basic stats: Goals plus assists per game played, for both club and country (excluding international friendlies). Here’s what we have according to ESPN Stats & Info data (which includes data from most club and some international results back to 2010-11, and from World Cups back to 1966):
Your play for Argentina has been the third-most productive on a game-by-game basis (0.88 GPA/G over 42 games). Of the 324 soccer players with at least 20 appearances for both (Big Five) club and country, only two have put together more productive runs: David Villa, with 0.90 GPA/G over 31 games for Spain and Klass-Jan Huntelaar with 0.96 GPA/G over 29 games for the Netherlands. (In fact, despite international soccer being notoriously low-scoring, the international version of yourself has been more productive than any club players save yourself, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez.)
As great as Villa and Huntelaar have been, they’re basically the result of the field playing playing “best hand” against you. How well have their international hot streaks have been corroborated by their club careers? In the Stats & Info data, Villa scored 0.49 goals plus assists per game in club play, and Huntelaar scored 0.61. You’ve scored 1.46. In other words, their combined club production still falls well short of yours.
Your play with Argentina does affect your legacy. It cements it.
But let’s face it: In Barcelona, you pretty much play for an all-star team in a game so unequal it makes Major League Baseball look like a communist revolution. You play for a team so good that you aren’t even the most productive player on it! I mean, you’re likely still more valuable, but Luis Suarez has had a Messi-like season.
Playing for Argentina is your one chance to play a substantial number of games on a relatively even playing field.
Of course, other players benefit from playing for what are essentially all-star teams as well, but on the other side: While Argentina is a decent team on its own, without you it doesn’t have the star power as Germany, Brazil, Spain or the Netherlands. Many players have been significantly more productive playing for their international team than their club team, and vice versa. We don’t always know which represents a player’s true strength, so let’s look at the less productive setting of the two for everyone:
You come out on top, even though some players have fewer games and higher variance (the three other dots in your neighborhood are – you guessed it – Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Suarez). Of the players who have done worse for club than country, only Neymar and Robin Van Persie have produced within 0.1 GPA/G of the 0.88 you put up for Argentina.
If you take an unweighted average of country and club performance, your 1.17 GPA/G easily tops all players, with Ronaldo second at 1.08 and Ibrahimovic in third at 0.96.
Still not convinced? Here are a few hundred million other reasons to keep playing.
So you’ve never won a major cup for Argentina. Continuing to play is no guarantee that you will. And no matter what you do, some Argentinians will never think you’re better than Maradona. International play is hard and high variance.
But it’s also incredibly popular.
You’ll be turning 31 at the start of the 2018 World Cup, meaning you could legitimately have two or three more runs on the grandest stage in sports left in you.