Some in Argentina revel in the joy he brings, others feel he lacks emotional attachment to his country. Can Messi take surely his final chance to win the World Cup?
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring in Argentina’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Bolivia.
“Whenever I have trouble sleeping, I find Messi’s goals on YouTube and watch them on a loop,” the acclaimed Argentinian film-maker Lucrecia Martel confessed recently. Asked whether they sent her to sleep she said: “They give me peace; I recover faith.”
Many Argentinians derive faith from watching Lionel Messi play: “Messi is the first genius of the 21st century,” Jorge Valdano tells me, “and the last bridge between the street and the academy. If for Maradona the ball was a musical instrument, for Messi it’s a tool which he utilises with a stunning sense of efficacy.”
Valdano was part of Argentina’s most recent World Cup-winning team and Maradona’s on-field partner in that 1986 final. He doesn’t use the word genius lightly. Attempts to explain Messi’s genius have provoked a non-negligible body of literature. Outstanding among the crop is Ramiro Martín’s A Genius in the School Football. “Aimar used to say one doesn’t think on the pitch, one makes decisions,” Martín says, referring to the former Argentina playmaker. “Messi does so in a fraction of a split second and 90% of the time he makes the right decision.”
“Messi is two, three players at once,” Javier Mascherano once said, and he recently clarified for me what he means: “Conceptually, Leo does what in other teams you need three players to do: he takes care of creating play, finishing and assisting all at the same time.” Messi’s stats are a testament to this; he has surpassed most on goals scored but also in terms of assists. Mascherano thinks the constant improvement makes Messi all the more spectacular: “He is continually in ascendant evolution – year after year he becomes a better player.”
On-field genius comes with an off‑pitch low profile that has rendered him enigmatic to say the least. He rarely says much, and when he does it’s hardly amazing. The writer John Carlin once said that having interviewed Messi twice, if he were offered him again he would refuse. “Shy,” everyone says, and almost as often the reference comes with “not so much shy as introverted”. What is unarguable is that Messi’s savant qualities exist. And that’s what is of interest.
After Argentina’s players achieved second place at the 2014 World Cup, playing every minute of the tournament with every fibre of their beings, there was a hideous backlash back home dwelling on the mistakes, the could-have-beens, the ifs and the buts. The cross Messi has to bear for being Argentinian but not having won a major trophy for the nation is as unbearable as it is ridiculous.
The dichotomy between club and country is the single most referred-to question thrown my way when it comes to Messi, ever since he sat on the bench as an unused substitute in 2006, sulking while Argentina went out to Germany. How come he delivers so much for Barcelona and so little for Argentina? Is it Andrés Iniesta? Or is it because he’s somehow a traitor? He doesn’t sing the national anthem was one of the criticisms. And he never played in his own country’s first division.
A perception has been voiced that somehow he is sometimes a ravenous winner (for Barcelona) and other times a disconnected outsider who doesn’t feel the emotion of the strip (for Argentina). The author Andrés Burgo disputes this. “There was never a ravenous Messi and another disconnected one: he was always ravenously disconnected,” he wrote in 2015. That came after the 2014 “fiasco” was followed by Messi leading Argentina to another final, the Copa América, where they lost to Chile.
Lionel Messi after Argentina’s defeat by Chile in the 2016 Copa América final. He quit international football but then reversed that decision.
Ravenous, disconnected, introverted and somehow remarkably ‘one more in the team’ and ‘just a normal guy’ – quite a feat for probably the most famous guy in the world. “You’re better-known than Coca-Cola,” the political journalist Luis Majul told him a few months ago in an interview aired in Argentina and Messi laughed. Why? Was it the fact itself or the nature of the comparison that cracked him up? Majul asked, as if talking to a child (because interviewers talk to him as if he is a child): “What are you laughing at? It’s true.” The reply was a shrug, an ‘I don’t know’, some sort of ‘I never think about myself in those terms’ thing.
A more recent interview with the popular football programme Líbero visited Messi’s personal museum of balls, trophies and football shirts – the shirts signed by former team-mates, rivals, legends. He shows off Iniesta’s, the most recent addition: “I never asked him for his shirt before, because I was still enjoying him,” he explains; now that Iniesta has left Barcelona he dared ask. “You are the number one, there is no one like you,” Iniesta’s message says.
Huge efforts from the Messi brand are being poured into highlighting the fact that he gives these interviews to Argentinian media. The view that Messi has matured – now that he is a father – and adopted leadership skills, that he is more sure of himself and dares be who he wants to be, is further illustrated by his relatively new image. “The ornamental beard, so in vogue, so ex-con,” was the cynical take from the professional social provocateur Esteban Schmidt in Argentina. The Beckham-style tattoos (at least one of which has been removed) present a more masculine, muscular Messi. Gone is the shy anti-social Messi; in comes the new leader.
“In spite of media efforts to Maradonise him, he really doesn’t pick players, select squads, or dictate formations or lineups,” a source from within team Messi says to counter rumours rife in Argentina. Much was made of the fact that in a friendly against Spain in March, when he asked not to play because of muscle fatigue, he went into the dressing room at half-time to give the pep talk. At Brazil 2014, after an initial defensive formation, apparently Messi sent word to the coach Alejandro Sabella that the players weren’t happy, and a more offensive lineup reigned henceforth.
We can track rumours of the modus operandi back years; allegedly he texted managers with his tactical critique form the bus after a match, seats away from the manager himself. He is more comfortable texting than speaking. Also attributed to Verón is the claim that the only time he saw him nervous enough to lose sleep (Messi sleeps on average a couple of hours more than most athletes, including a sacred afternoon nap) was when he had to speak to the squad as captain in 2010. Verón says Messi paced the room they shared anxiously.
Lionel Messi takes on the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup. One of Argentina’s former coaches says the player’s ‘neuromuscular co-ordination has a cosmic power’.
Messi’s phone is his friend. To the point that on the friendly tour of Manchester and Madrid it was leaked that he sat, head hung low, staring at the screen even at meal-times; that younger players in awe dared not approach. His longstanding osteopath of yesteryear José Brau said: “The way to understand him is to watch his body language: when his head is down it’s as if he was putting up a Do Not Disturb sign.”
Sometimes his head appears to be low on the pitch and he goes on to score some impossible goal, and it really is on the pitch that we should observe him. “A genetic miracle,” Fernando Signorini tells me. Signorini has worked as a trainer with footballers for as long as he can remember and was in charge of Argentina’s physical coaching at the 2010 World Cup. “Just like Diego, his neuromuscular co-ordination has a cosmic power. Almost unthinkable ability to control their body in time and space, defying gravity. At maximum speed, he can take two steps with the same leg (and the ball!). I’ve tried to do it on sand, and I couldn’t. Leo and Diego do it routinely, at high velocity, surrounded by the greatest players in the world trying to stop them. That’s how I would define his genius.”
The challenge then is to create the environment that will best enable him to thrive. Successive Argentina managers have spent inordinate amounts of time not only meeting Messi on regular trips to Barcelona but questioning Pep Guardiola, the coach widely regarded as having got the best out of him. Guardiola is said to have told Sabella: “Speak to him the bare minimum, only when absolutely necessary.”
Martín remembers Guardiola showing him video footage he would put in front of Messi accompanied by light hints. “What do you think if we try this?” Or: “It seems to me that we could have an opportunity if we did that …” “Suggest,” Guardiola says. And let him be.
Jorge Sampaoli has also been briefed by Guardiola. Argentina’s coach seems to be cracking the Messi enigma. Sources close to the footballer say he was very pleased after their first meeting, because they “only spoke about football”. It is in keeping with Guardiola’s stance to stick to the subject.
The anguish Messi feels when he loses is clear. The image of him sobbing in the arms of Mascherano after defeat in one final, the surprise retirement from international football after another (he was lured back) are indicative of a frustration bordering on the unbearable.
But the absurdity of the burden the national flag represents subjects him to constant backlash – his every utterance turned against him in the most unexpected ways. “Do you feel you owe the World Cup to the Argentinian people,” he was asked. “We owe it to ourselves,” Messi replied.
A barrage of manufactured controversy ensued: Messi doesn’t feel indebted to the nation. Traitor, vendepatria, motivated by the deep Qatari-sponsored coffers of Barcelona more than by the glorious emotive weight of the national strip.
The sports psychologist Marcelo Roffé, who worked with Messi’s generation of players at youth level, once told me it wasn’t Maradona who is ill – Argentinian society is ill. “How can a person be psychologically prepared to tolerate the ‘poison’ of success?” he said. “It’s not easy.”
Messi and Maradona share a banner. The sports psychologist Marcelo Roffé says: ‘As Argentines, we have done a lot of damage to Maradona … Let’s hope with Messi we learn to modify our behaviour.’
Messi has enjoyed his football more with Barcelona. The familiarity with his team-mates and his surroundings notwithstanding, perhaps he really is a creature of habit. He apparently likes order, is himself very ordered, and Argentina maybe throws just that little bit more chaos his way than he can handle. Unlike Maradona, who thrives on conflict and feeds off opposition, Messi seems to need co-operation in order to succeed. He functions best as part of a well-oiled machine. It’s difficult to match that concept with Argentina, on any level.
Plenty of Argentinians are football lovers in the purest sense, content to share the fact that we are from the same country as Messi and satisfied with the joy he has given. “I love you just the way you are; without cups or trophies” Alejandro Wall titled a feature-length ode of gratitude, voicing the feeling of millions. But plenty more, and perhaps the media are more guilty of this than most, still feel something is incomplete.
Mascherano told me that Messi has a conditioning effect on the collective performance. He also believes Messi’s best version depends on the team, and Messi seems to echo this, always claiming he wins nothing alone.
Maradona won a World Cup for Argentina practically single-handedly, but at a cost. To himself, and perhaps the collective ego of the nation. “This has to be very clearly stated: Messi is not Maradona; whether we like it or not,” Roffé has said. “As Argentines, we have done a lot of damage to Maradona. We can’t stop consuming him, as if he was a substance. Let’s hope with Messi we learn to modify our behaviour.”
This is almost certainly Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup, so the onus and pressure are really on the other 22 players. Are they up to the task of helping the genius emerge triumphant? Will anything change if they do? At a recent press conference discussing Messi’s fantastic maturity and fitness level, Sampaoli was asked whether this World Cup was “Messi’s World Cup”. He replied: “This one, the next one, and the one after that.” It’s not as if he’s going to play until he’s 50, came the retort from the floo