By Mark Lindemann
Argentina has provided the soccer world with some of the most exciting players the sport has ever seen, including, arguably, the best player of all time in Lionel Messi. Recently, Argentina made waves in international soccer for less commendable reasons, player discontent. These two aspects of Argentinian soccer converged over the summer when multiple players expressed their dissatisfaction with the national football association, with Messi becoming the unofficial spokesmen for La Albiceleste (nickname for the national team). He even threatened to quit the national team and, for a while, it appeared that he followed through on this threat. He eventually returned to the team in his capacity as a world-class player and, in doing so, also resumed his role as the unofficial champion of player dissatisfaction.
Following a 3-0 win over Colombia on November 15, Messi took to the microphone at the team’s press conference. As the entire team filed into the room and stood behind Messi, the mood in the room quickly turned from joyous to anxious as he began his remarks. He stated that, as a matter of protest, none of the players would be answering any questions due to unfair treatment the players had been receiving in the media. This was in reference to a number of reports, although there was one in particular that pushed them over the edge and provided the catalyst for the protest.
Gabriel Anello, a reporter for Argentinian radio station, tweeted out “Lavezzi is left off the substitutes’ bench tomorrow because of the joint that was smoked last night in the camp? I’m asking…just asking.” Anello was referencing the fact that Ezequiel Lavezzi, a normal national team mainstay, was left off the roster for the game against Colombia.
That accusation sparked the protest that Messi spoke of after the game. He continued in his remarks, saying that the accusations were serious and disrespectful. It was the personal nature of the statement that troubled the players. “We can be criticized if we lose, or win, or if we play well or badly, but this is getting into personal lives. If we don’t put a stop to it now, we’ll never stop it,” concluded Messi. Lavezzi was so infuriated that he has now threatened the reporter with a lawsuit. He claims that the statements were false and have damaged him with respect to his family and work.
Under both U.S. and Argentinian law, the statement must be published, false, injurious and non-privileged. Both legal systems also include an additional element for those who are considered public figures. People who are in the public eye, such as athletes, politicians, or actors, must prove the additional element of actual malice, which means either the person knew it was not true or acted recklessly in publishing the statement. If Lavezzi were to bring such a suit, he is going to encounter further issues with the freedom of the press provided for in the Argentinian Constitution.
Lavezzi is understandably upset considering the apparently false rumor, but bringing a lawsuit seems to be frivolous. By suing, Lavezzi would be attempting to obtain vindication, money damages, or both. Criminal liability could not be imposed on Anello due to a 2009 change in the Argentinian law which decriminalized libel and slander. If the statement is truly false, then vindication is easily acquired through an explanation from one of the coaches of the real reason for exclusion. As for the money, Lavezzi inked a new deal with Hebei China Fortune in February that nets him a shade over $450,000 a week, so money is likely not a driving factor.
Considering the team frustrations, a boycott seems reasonable if that’s how the team would like to handle the situation. A lawsuit on the other hand, would appear to take it too far, even in Lavezzi’s case. There is a reason that defamation laws generally are stricter for public figures than they are for private citizens. Extreme scrutiny comes with the territory of being a public figure. Few people know this better than the arguable best player in the world and advocate for Lavezzi’s cause, Messi. And with that, La Albiceleste has once again provided the world with their potent cocktail of dazzling soccer and disgruntled players.