“This kid will save us”. It was 2006, the era of Saviola, Crespo, Riquelme and Tevez, but Lionel Messi was already feeling the pressure of becoming a World Cup legend. He was 18 when he was called up for Germany 2006, and had already turned 19 when he scored his first goal, in the 6-1 against Serbia and Montenegro. In the quarterfinals against Germany, José Pekerman decided to send in Julio Cruz instead of the Barcelona wonderkid, a mistake he will never be forgotten for. Messi ended up arms-crossed, sitting in the bench.
With the same age, four World Cups later, Kylian Mbappé ended arms-crossed after celebrating his two goals against Argentina. A memorable night in Kazan. And perhaps, the last World Cup memory for Messi. What was so easy to achieve for Mbappé, for Messi has been elusive. Now 31, the Argentinian has amassed every possible record, from Golden Balls to Golden Boots, but he has been unable to produce the same level of brilliance during a World Cup.
He has in fact never scored a goal in a knockout game in any of the World Cups. Like if the FIFA trophy was some sort of kryptonite to him. How many of his Golden Balls will he trade for a World Cup? “All of them,” say the people from his inner circle.
The two Messis
During the first six years as international, tears and frustration escorted every Messi trip to Argentina. But after returning him damaged, Barcelona and Pep Guardiola seemed to cure him in a few days, like if they have a magical spell.
In South Africa 2010, Messi was undoubtedly Argentina’s greatest talent, but not yet one of the experienced players of the team. His shyness was the contrast of Carlos Tevez’s outbursts or Juan Sebastián Veron’s leadership in the dressing room. He didn’t score a single goal in that World Cup, and needed two more years to score again with the Albiceleste jersey. He was even jeered by some Argentina fans during the 0-0 against Colombia in the Copa America 2011, played at Colón de Santa Fe stadium.
For fans that never had the chance of watching him in action in a stadium, only on television, it looked like the Argentinian Messi was a bad copy of Catalan Messi. So that was the only record that Leo never wanted to hold: being the only player that had two different players in one body. He was ying and yang, the happy face and the sad face, the lethal goalscorer and the one that couldn’t even score once in 16 official games, including qualifiers, World Cup or Copa America: 0 goals and only 4 assists. Imagine that happening in a Champions League campaign, or in the Spanish League, when there’s a DEFCON1 alert in the Spanish media if he has not scored after two weeks.
The problem was that there were two different universes and they both pointed to the same man. Was Messi a superhero? Was Messi a fake? But after resuscitating under Alejandro Sabella’s guidance, Messi ended his 2012 with more goals than matches played for Argentina.
In 2014, when everything appeared to be perfect, Messi saw how Di María and Aguero got injured, and the plan of playing 4-2-4 as he wanted, ended up being a 4-4-1-1. From scoring three goals in the group stage, he scored none in the knockout games until the final, practically disappeared in the games against Belgium and the Netherlands and missed two clear chances in the final, that left him, once more, in tears. He instantly removed his medal for the 2nd place but had to endure receiving the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, looking completely dejected.
He had already cried in South Africa 2010 (“I’ve never seen something crying with so much feeling,” said Maradona), and repeated in Chile 2015 and in the United States 2016, for the two Copa America finals that Argentina lost on penalties.
Fed up with losing, in the Copa America Centenario he announced that he would retire from international football, frustrated for not being able to win something with the Argentina shirt. But during his holidays, he had second thoughts and his partner, now wife, Antonella, convinced him to try again. One of the ways of showing this fresh start was dying his hair in a very eclectic blonde. It was Messi the White, just like Gandalf, the wizard from the Lord of the Rings. And he came back to guide Argentina to victory, scoring two goals against Colombia and a goal against Uruguay, to avoid the risks of not qualifying to the World Cup for the first time since 1970.
But everything changed, Messi got injured, and Argentina changed the managers too much, too often. It was Messi that rescued the team once again against Ecuador, almost getting a last-minute wildcard for Russia. With Messi, Argentina won 70% of the points; without Messi, only 29%. His influence had never been more evident.
The worst World Cup
But going to Russia 2018 was like a loop. It was undoubtedly his worst World Cup. The gesture during the national anthem, moments before playing against Croatia, will be remembered forever: facepalm, pressing his forehead, trying to cope with the pressure like never before. It is the first time that Messi prayed on the pitch, too. And the game hadn’t even started. It ended with Croatia winning 3-0 and Messi signing one of his most lacklustre performances ever.
What was more worrying was that, instead of behaving like a captain, Messi had retreated into the 2006 package. Isolated, alone and silent, it was the team that was trying to cheer him up, rather him trying to cheer up the team. Not even the agony of beating Nigeria five minutes from the end, and his magnificent goal for the 1-0, was enough to motivate him. Argentina’s camp was full of problems, manager Jorge Sampaoli changing formations and names permanently, and managing with his assistants in front of the players. Everything was supposed to go wrong. And that’s what happened.
Messi might be a football genius capable of deciding a match on his own, but it is also a precious yet fragile piece inside the Barcelona machinery. He needs harmony and a positive environment to flourish. Unlike Maradona, Messi is not, and will never be, the leader that emerges amid chaos. When there’s chaos, he retreats. When the manager makes an odd selection, he disappears. Leo would have never been the leader of Napoli in the mid 80s, just as Diego couldn’t become the leader of Barcelona in the early 80s. Their personalities depict perfectly the cities that made them famous: Maradona is Naples; Messi is Barcelona. But the national team of Argentina is nothing close to Barcelona.
Will he have the willpower to come back and start over, with new younger players that revere him but, at the same time, desire to win a trophy because of him rather than with him? Will he accept to see his generation, Mascherano, Biglia, Di María, Higuain retire as he remains alone in the dressing room? Has he internally asked for a new manager, given Sampaoli’s bonkers decisions? No, he will hardly speak up with words; in Argentina they have learned to understand his looks and his reactions, in silence. That’s why Sampaoli is a dead man walking.
Pibe, Argentinians still say to him. Kid. But the kid Leo has grown older. He is a man. He is the father of three sons. He got married. He has grabbed a mic in front of a pack of Argentinian journalists, the same that he could not even look in the eye a few years ago, and informed them, respectfully, without reading, without staring to the floor, that the team would boycott the press for indefinite time. He has dyed his hair, he has grown a beard. He has resigned to the national team, only to have second thoughts and announce he would be coming back. He has become Argentina’s greatest goalscorer ever, the player that has captained the team for more games, and he will have the record of caps now that Mascherano decided to hang up his boots. He has played a World Cup final and three Copa America finals. He has won the Gold Medal in Beijing 2008. He is one of the most paid athletes of all-time. The new generations, the millennials, know his name before knowing what is that weird sport called football. It’s just two syllabuses, quite easy for 2 year old kids.
He has endured critics of all kind, some of them much more painful that the injections he had to take in his legs when he was 12 and still wanted to pursue that career in football. And he beat them. The idea of having a Messi-less Argentina is nothing short of terrifying.
So why can’t Messi be happy?
This is the question that managers, team-mates, journalists and fans have been asking themselves, desperate to find an answer, because, in the end, managers change, but the Argentinian plan is always the same: let’s rescue Messi so Messi can rescue us.
Credit: AIPS Media