It was never going to be sustainable.
Between the start of the 2008-09 campaign and his injury suffered on Sunday against Real Betis, Lionel Messi made 287 appearances for Barcelona—the vast majority of them for the full 90 minutes—and also turned out 53 times for Argentina.
Do the math and it adds up to more than 62 matches per season for five seasons in a row.
And while the diminutive Argentine dealt with the workload admirably—even heroically (he claimed four successive Ballon d’Or awards over that period, after all)—he was never going to be able to maintain such a pace; something he found out last spring when his body finally gave out on him.
Substituted at the break during the first leg of Barcelona’s Champions League quarter-final tie against Paris Saint-Germain on April 2, Messi played parts of only five more matches before the summer break—one of them the 4-0 loss to Bayern Munich in which he was a shadow of his regular self.
"I’m not fully fit," he admitted to reporters following a 45-minute showing for Argentina against Colombia in early June. (via Marca)
It was a line he repeated earlier this month on the social networking site Weibo: "Physically, I’m not at 100 per cent yet." (via Football-Espana)
And no wonder.
It’s hardly a coincidence that every notable injury Messi has suffered since the end of the 2007-08 season, when he really began to clock up the mileage, has been stress related.
There was a torn muscle in March 2008; a ligament problem in September 2010. But beginning with that early exit at Parc des Princes last April, the 26-year-old has sustained four leg injuries in seven months—injuries that should never have occurred; injuries that might have been prevented had his playing time been better managed.
On Monday, following extensive tests, Barcelona confirmed the latest hamstring tear was the most serious of them all: six to eight weeks on the sidelines, with a return to action pencilled in for a home match against Elche on January 5.
He will also miss international friendlies against Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina while he recovers.
That is, of course, if he’s allowed to.
Expedited physiotherapy regimens have been used in the past to rush Messi back on to the pitch, and given the notion many athletes have that they should be able to play if they feel well enough, there has never been any stopping the attacker’s consistently quick returns to action, no matter the harm inflicted on his body.
This time, however, there are voices from within the club urging caution for the next couple of months.
"Messi needs to take a break and take good care of himself," teammate Cesc Fabregas told Marca following Sunday’s match. "I had a really hard time for a year-and-a-half at Arsenal with the same injury...He needs to take as much time as he needs, to recover and get back to his best."
It’s a mindset shared by Jordi Ardevol, a former Barcelona medic, who on Monday told the program Esports Cope that "Messi should not return—not until he is 100 per cent recovered." (via Football-Espana)
He went on: "However, there are many factors that influence things: the desire to play as soon as possible, the team's needs, the pressure in the environment both sporting and commercially with the World Cup in sight. There are many things at the club to manage so as to make it very complicated."
Be that as it may, Barcelona will only be risking further, and perhaps permanent, damage to their talisman should they fail to manage both his playing time and recovery with more thought to the long term.
Already they’ll be without him for the rest of the calendar year, and for Messi, himself, it’s likely his rash of leg injuries will cost him a fifth straight Ballon d’Or when the award is presented in January.
But his focus shouldn’t be on the trophy or on another half-recovery. It’s in his best interests, never mind the interests of Barcelona and Argentina, to see this current injury through to its proper healing.
And those who handle him, both at Camp Nou and on the commercial side, should do their utmost to make that happen.