The sight of Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, weeping openly, then saying he had had enough of playing in Argentina’s blue and white strip, broke the hearts of the faithful around the world.
To be sure, the sight of that ever boyish face, one that stayed remarkably still while putting smiles on the faces of millions through the magic of his feet, was the kind of image you do not want to see in sport, especially the one that is called the beautiful game. But, while the tears running down Messi’s cheeks ran counter to his streaks of genius that cut swathes through opposition defences, and his international retirement was the last thing Argentina fans starved of success is major competition wanted to come to terms with, there was a silver lining.
Messi’s theatrics are usually limited to his brilliance with the ball, and when he let go, it was only because the floodgates had finally been breached. The expression was spontaneous and even fleeting, but it was no surface reaction. Frustration, or something approaching that, had been building over the years, each Argentina disappointment and major loss adding a layer of sediment that obscured the dazzling brilliance and repeated success that Messi has grown accustomed to with Barcelona.
Sport, in its essence, is an expression of dizzying freedom and joy. When a child first takes to a game, it is a physical expression of energy, of the need to do something simply because it makes you happy. Then come structure, the pursuit of excellence, and, at the highest level, the importance of winning at all costs.
Messi should count himself lucky that his chosen sport – some would say the sport the gods chose for their favourite – was football, rather than cricket. For, footballers, despite routinely being a disgruntled lot, struggling to deal with fame and drugs and alcohol, are far less likely to embrace the dark side than cricketers.
There is something about the bat and ball game that despite being a summer game, encourages brooding, self-doubt and the kind of quiet moroseness that seldom leads to good things. Sarah Taylor, from England, was the most recent high profile cricketer to go public with her inner struggles, after announcing that she was taking a break from the game. “It’s a genuine panic, the heart races, you feel faint and those are little things I go through,” said Taylor. “There have been times when I have had to run off into the changing rooms and be sick through sheer panic.” She joins the ranks of a long list of cricketers who have battled mental illness of one kind or another.
Graeme Fowler, the former England left-hand bat, devoted a considerable chunk of his recently published book, Absolutely Foxed, to his struggles with depression.
“Any decision I’ve ever made in my life I’ve always gone inside my own head,” he said. “I’ve never sought advice from people to make my mind up. When I was diagnosed with depression my doctor asked me if I wanted to go for counselling. One, my head wasn’t working so I had no words in it and two, I wanted to sort it out for myself because that’s what I’d always done. I sometimes wish I had an arm in a cast or a stitched up head, because people can see that injury, but they can’t always see that you’re mentally injured.”
Marcus Trescothick and Jonathan Trott are two other recent examples of amputated spirits, cricketers whose careers were cut short by mental struggles that they initially did not understand, later grappled with and eventually dealt with by walking away from cricket in one way or another.
It cannot be a coincidence that there are two books solely dealing with cricketers who committed suicide. David Frith, the author of both books – By His own Hand and the updated, widened Silence of the Heart – has documented every confirmed cricketing suicide, from Fred Bull to Aubrey Faulkner to Baqa Jilani. Peter Roebuck, who wrote the foreword to By His own Hand, and who would throw himself to his death from a Cape Town hotel two decades later, was typically poetic in his assessment: “Cricketers are vulnerable because the game attracts sensitive men of aesthetic temperament, the very men who are, in the end, least well served by it.”
Frith does not have the largest sample size to work with, but simple back of the envelope calculations suggest that in England, for example, a cricketer is twice as likely to take his own life than a member of the general population. “The nature of cricket is such that it tears at the nerves. Half-hearted cricketers are extremely rare. This game gets a grip on people such as only religious fanatics might recognise,” said Frith. “There is a compulsive nature to the game and an inherent uncertainty which could damage the soul.”
There is little in common with the cricketers who decided to take matters into their hands in the most decisive manner. Bowlers some, batsmen others, introverts and braggarts, white, black and shades in between. But one thread that inevitably ran through the lot was that they suffered long in silence.
To that end, it should warm hearts that Messi’s tears were shed in the glare of the harshest lights of a global audience, that he took a conclusive decision that would make his life better, his pain more bearable. Because the alternative, as cricket has so starkly illustrated, is simply not worth contemplating.