Five-time Ballon d’Or winner, 9 time La Liga winner and 4 time UEFA Champions League winner Lionel Messi is awash with honours, both individual and at club level. He is largely touted as the world’s best player, depending on which side of the fence you sit on. He is without a doubt someone who will go down in the throws of history along with the Cruyffs, Ronaldos and Pelés; part of a special class of player that usually only comes around once a generation.
More importantly for Lionel Messi, he is Argentinian. But if you’re Argentinian and going to be considered one of the world’s greatest ever players, that comes with expectations and with responsibilities. Some might say, if you’re Lionel Messi, it comes with huge burdens.
This story was born on the plains of the pampas in Argentina’s heartlands, but where it really took off was in Catalonia, Spain, thousands of miles on the other side of the world. Messi began his career at Newell’s Old Boys in his hometown of Rosario, but soon showed promise and eventually made it across the ocean to Barcelona’s famous and prestigious La Masia academy. He joined a cohort of names that would one day become some of the most talented and successful players straddling two generations. Barcelona’s academy produced such an abundance of talent that many of those names were forced to look for work elsewhere.
Messi was always and still is at the pinnacle of that production line, from the day he stepped off the boat, to his most recent moment once again lifting the La Liga trophy for a ninth time. To be considered a club’s greatest player is an exceptional achievement wherever you are, but to do it with Barcelona in the wake of some of the finest names in modern football is something else.
Few can doubt his achievements in Catalonia, and few would, but it’s this very success that has bred a certain element of discontent, even of contempt back in Argentina. Many seek to ask why he can leave for a foreign land and give Barcelona so much success but not repay the nation that birthed him, that gave him sustenance – his homeland.
Four Lost Finals
Players and managers alike will always be measured on their successes, but at the very top, when you’re supposed to win, you’ll always be rated against your defeats just the same. This has been a large part of Messi’s international career up to date. Three lost opportunities at the Copa América, going out to arch rivals Brazil in 2007 and twice consecutively to Chile in 2015 and 2016 – both times on penalties, not to mention a woeful campaign in 2011 sandwiched in between.
And then there are the World Cups. For all of Messi’s stats and the records he’s managed to accrue, he’s barely even registered on the radar at World Cups. He’s scored a measly five goals across three World Cups and hasn’t once found the net in the knockout stages.
Disappointments are part and parcel of the game, and you have to take the rough with the smooth, but for Messi, that fourth defeat in a championship final was one step too far. He’d looked dejected and resigned at the Copa América in 2007, even at the World Cup in 2014. He still had something left in 2015, but after number four he couldn’t stem the flow of tears. He’d finally reached breaking point. It was just never meant to be, he would never scale the same heights and break bread at the same table as Argentina’s fabled son. A few days after the Copa América defeat Messi announced his retirement from international football.
You can’t talk about Messi’s relationship with Argentina without talking about Maradona. That’s just the way it is. Maradona, the people’s hero, was born into a life of poverty. He was the kid from the wrong side of the tracks come good. Everyone loves a rags to riches success story, but for Messi, life hasn’t always been so easy either. With great talent have come some difficult and life-altering choices. In order to become the player he has today, in order to be the beacon he has been for Argentina, he’s had to make many sacrifices. The biggest of all was switching his homeland for Spain at such an early age.
In fact, Messi has more caps and a better record than Maradona did for his country. Maradona’s goal-scoring rate was around 1 in 3, whereas Messi’s is around 1 in 2, but any stats that can be thrown around will always be futile. They don’t matter because Messi has never won a World Cup for his country. That’s just the way it is.
Even if Messi did win a World Cup for Argentina, whether it’s this year in Russia or even four years ahead in Qatar, he wouldn’t be revered the way Maradona is. It’s unlikely Argentinians and foreign onlookers alike would confer the legendary, even godlike status upon him as they have done with Maradona. Winning a World Cup plays its part in propelling you to the forefront, but unfairly it ultimately comes down to the cult status that is unique to Maradona, a cult status you don’t have with other football players.
Maradona was the bad boy, the hero and the villain, all at the same time. He was one of the greatest natural talents the world has ever seen, and yet he was tainted with the same vices that an everyday person is susceptible to. He didn’t have to train, he was effortless, and yet he was capable of such amazing feats on the pitch that would take his teams to certain victory. Furthermore, Maradona was charismatic and outspoken, and still to this day has an aura around him as he pushes into his elder years.
Unfortunately for Messi, he doesn’t have these qualities. He is a magician on the ball, even mesmerising just like Maradona was. But off the pitch he can appear clumsy, he lacks the charisma and magnetism. He lacks the gift of the gab.
The Road to Redemption
It’s not all doom and gloom when you’ve got the common people marching in their droves in the centre of the nation’s capital Buenos Aires, singing your name without ever gifting them a national trophy. In South America, where football fans are especially unforgiving, that’s no mean feat. That’s just what happened, in honour of Messi. After he announced his retirement following his fourth final defeat the people took to the streets in force, begging him to change his mind. Sometimes it takes losing something important to realise just what it is you’ve lost. Even the country’s president Mauricio Macri and Maradona himself begged for Messi to come back.
And he did just that. Messi came back to join Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 – and what a woeful campaign it was. Argentina were less than impressive and only just managed to squeeze themselves through in the last game against Ecuador. Messi was the difference in the end, scoring a hat trick to take Argentina to a 3-1 victory and to the World Cup. In fact, without Messi, Argentina only managed to win one game, drew four and lost three. Whereas when he played they won six, drew three and only lost one. The difference and the impact he makes is clear for everyone to see now more than ever.
The Prodigal Son Who’s Never Shone
124 caps for Argentina and 46 goals have unfortunately not done much to convince his compatriots over the long term, but where the problem lies isn’t with Lionel Messi. The problem lies with Argentina. With the big names, the big players and one of the world’s most renowned and intense fan cultures, Argentina is always expected to win – whether it be a friendly match, Copa América or World Cup.
The fact is Argentina haven’t won a World Cup in 32 years, which is a long time if you’re considered amongst the favourites every time round. Despite making it to two finals in 1990 and 2014 they’ve actually done very little to impress otherwise. For all their talent, they’ve gone out at the quarter-final stage or earlier in every other iteration of the World Cup since. Success for Argentina is actually the exception to the rule.
Messi cannot do any more than he already has done. Messi has carried his nation into this World Cup and he should be rightly acknowledged for that. They would not be in Russia if it weren’t for him. Now, his teammates need to dig deep and repay his efforts. Long-term teammate Javier Mascherano said it right, now it’s time they live up to his standards.