World Cup 2022: Are Messi, Neymar, Pogba & Co. happier in national team colours?

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The contrast between the reception afforded to Lionel Messi in Paris and Buenos Aires could not have been lost on the Argentina superstar.

His last match in the French capital, just after Paris Saint-Germain's bruising Champions League elimination at the hands of Real Madrid, began with the Parc des Princes crowd roundly jeering their No. 30.

A subsequent 3-0 defeat of Bordeaux did little to quell the ill-will towards the veteran and team-mate Neymar in particular.

But last Friday, Messi experienced a rather different greeting. Boca Juniors' Bombonera, one of the most evocative, electric stadiums on the planet, gave its idol a stunning ovation that shook every corner of the picturesque old ground, and Leo repaid its affection in turn with another strike and solid display as Argentina saw off Venezuela by three goals.

Two 3-0 victories, but the story behind each could not be more different. Messi feels loved by his adoring fans back home, a breath of fresh air after the cold shoulder afforded to him in Paris; and he is not the only footballer to seek refuge with his country when the club game becomes too much.

"There is a wonderful group here. The fans love me a lot and they keep showing me that more and more. I am very grateful,” the 34-year-old told reporters after the win.

"It does me good every time I come to Argentina. After the Copa America win, much more so. Everything flows naturally and it is easier on the field. Winning helps make everything nicer and easier.”

An almost identical sentiment was offered by Neymar after he put his PSG woes behind him with a goal in Brazil's crushing victory over Chile in Rio de Janeiro.

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“A packed Maracana inspires me, a packed Maracana pushes me to do it all, it gives me pleasure,” the playmaker beamed to CBF TV.

“It is a great joy. The atmosphere the supporters provided today was crucial to push us on even further.”

This feeling of shelter is by no means unique to South America. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba were both grateful to escape the bearpit that is Manchester United, even if it were only for a few short days, while the criticism the England and France players attracted for their candour only justified such comments.

While the sample size is admittedly small, one conclusion can be drawn: for many even in football's elite, the club game is becoming suffocating, toxic and almost unbearable.

Part of the issue is clearly the superhuman physical effort demanded in top teams. Between the club and international game, Messi clocked up 60 matches during his final Barcelona season. Even in the current term, he will likely break the 40 mark having allegedly 'taken it easy' for PSG.

Neymar's own repeated injury issues can be put down at least partially to the grind of multiple games a week, added to the intense punishment he endures in almost every match from overzealous markers. Pogba and Shaw have also broken down on multiple occasions over the course of their careers, both missing lengthy stretches of 2021-22.

There are simply too many games on the club calendar for the average player to remain fit and healthy, a concern noted by world footballers' union FIFPro in 2021 in a (as of yet ignored) report that called for compulsory breaks to be introduced in order to protect their wellbeing.

The demands are arguably even greater at clubs like PSG and United, where defeat is not tolerated and stars are expected to play at their best every time they take the field.

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Even as consummate and reliable a professional as Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski was moved to sharp criticism of the current calendar, telling the Times in 2021: “So many people forget we’re humans, we’re not machines, we cannot play every day at the highest level of performance.

“For football and for young players, that will be the big problem, to stay at the top for many years, because now and maybe the next two years, that will be extreme: so many big games.”

The physical side only makes up one part of the problem, of course, particularly during the shadow of coronavirus. FIFPro first warned of rampant issues with depression and anxiety in professional footballers in 2017, with cases proportionally far higher than in the general population, and the problem may only have worsened thanks to the constraints and subsequent demands made of players due to the pandemic.

As sports psychologist Dan Abrahams told The Athletic: “If you’ve got players now who look at the fixture list, see a congestion of games and also know they’re going to have no respite in the summer, you can start to perceive that situation as, ‘I’m going to have no time to rest and I’m not sure I can cope with that’.”

Added to that already exhausting outlook is the need for constant success from fans and the vitriol players receive when they fall short, either from the stands or, increasingly more common, from vicious, often anonymous accounts on social media, interspersed with personal or racially motivated abuse.

Nor is it a problem restricted to Europe's biggest clubs.

Independiente's Domingo Blanco revealed this week that he had been forced to take anti-anxiety medications after being targeted by the Argentine club's own fans, even receiving death threats during tense contract negotiations.

In Brazil, meanwhile, a spate of savage supporter attacks on players in and around football grounds has left several in hospital, and many others pleading for more protection from authorities.

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One of the most engaging aspects of football is its ability to change in the blink of an eye.

It was not so long ago, of course, that the boot was on the other foot for Messi: worshipped as a demi-god at Barcelona but the subject of no little mistrust and criticism back home.

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His frustration with the national team led him to even retire from international duty in 2016 before reversing his decision.

Still, though, the fact that top stars are seeking refuge in their national teams should be taken as a warning for the club game, even more so because those in charge appear to pay no heed to the red flags.

Every year there are more games, the stakes are higher and the margin for failure tighter. In that context, it should come as no surprise that the likes of Messi, Neymar, Pogba, Shaw and others are happier elsewhere.