Lionel Messi, the World’s Hero Who Wasn’t Always Argentina’s Hero

After Johann Cruyff, Messi has been the most influential footballer at Barcelona. Both were the leading stars of club sides that heralded a new model of excellence; both of them have suffered a strange comeuppance on the international stage.

Lionel Messi in his Barcelona colours, 2013. Credit: jackielck/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Lionel Messi in his Barcelona colours, 2013. Credit: jackielck/Flickr, CC BY 2.0 

“Whenever my team loses, it’s my responsibility.” No, Lionel Messi did not say that. It was someone else. Someone who embodied the Argentinean idea of a playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme. Someone who came to be crucified for his ‘lazy elegance’. It was not that he was not good enough. Rather, he did not care enough. That was the charge laid at his door often by critics and fans.

Curiously, Messi has battled a similar accusation throughout his Argentina career. When he was 13, his parents moved with him to Barcelona from Rosario for a team that had offered to pay for the treatment of his growth hormone deficiency. There was no contract, a verbal assurance at best. As we know now, it worked out better than anybody could have imagined. But it separated him from the Argentinean public.

He did not live his teenage years on the streets of Argentina. Many fans thought he did not belong. He was Catalan, some said. Argentina has an obsessive relationship with its football heroes. They need to grow up with them, spend their formative years in the rough and tumble of Argentinean football. Striker Carlos Tevez, who could never match Messi’s standing in the national team, always upstaged his more illustrious teammate in the public imagination. Tevez was el pibe del oro, an urchin-like figure of gold. A footballer of the masses.

After Messi failed to lead his side to World Cup glory in Brazil, Adidas launched its new shoe range that characterised the Barcelona star as pibe de barrio (a star of the local community). The advertising campaign tugged at the core of the debate. It attempted to present him as a figure that the Argentineans could identify as one of their own. His performance at the 2014 World Cup had bagged him the player of the tournament award. Now it was time to awaken the latent warmth that existed for him within the Argentinean society.

Yet, despite these machinations, Messi could never be seen as a local favourite. Argentina has not won a major international title since 1993. It was a burden that hung heavily in the air whenever La Albiceleste (The White and Sky Blue) approached an international competition. The shadow of Diego Maradona loomed large too. He had won the World Cup for his team in 1986. Messi had missed his chance in 2014. The pinch remained.

The South American continental championship, Copa America, arrived a year later and Argentina lost in the final again. Like a badly written drama, the whole script played out again on the night of June 26. The sequel was expanded to include a missed penalty by Messi in the shootout. It was all too much to take for a man who had until then stoically carried the burden. It had seemed that his wish would be granted before he himself blew it away.

Somehow, this made him a lesser being. Maradona had ordered the team to not return to Argentina if it failed to win the Copa America this time. A fairly ridiculous remark, one would say, considering the narrow margin of the side’s eventual defeat. But it’s Maradona. His association with reason is tenuous. Unlike Messi, who seems to be bound up in his own rationality.

Writing about Riquelme for the tabloid Perfil in 2007, Argentinean journalist Hugo Asch had remarked, “It would, after all, hardly seem right if our geniuses were level-headed.” Riquelme was misunderstood, so is Messi. Maradona remains an enigma, a figure partially understood and celebrated for his residence on the fringes of reason. Messi, all-time top scorer for Argentina, will enter the pantheon of his country’s football greats. Entering the heart of the Argentinean football fan has proved to be trickier.

Disappointment on and off the pitch

It’s not just this tension, however, that pushed Messi out. There were other tensions too, a hint that all was not too well within the Argentinean camp. “Unfortunately, the one that leaves most affected is Leo Messi after his penalty miss. This is the worst that I’ve seen him in the changing room,” claimed striker Sergio Aguero after the final on Sunday. He is considering his future with the national team. Javier Mascherano, Messi’s teammate at Barcelona, has quit already. The manner of defeat was brutal but there was an inkling of dissatisfaction before the final.

Messi had uploaded a post on the photo-sharing app Instagram on Friday, blaming the Argentine Football Association (AFA) for the delay of their flight from Houston to New Jersey. This followed grumblings about the poor facilities and hotels provided to the team throughout the tournament. The general disarray within the AFA had seemingly come to affect the team’s preparations. It clearly grated one of the world’s best players that he was supposed to put up with sub-standard preparations. It was not just the love from the fans that was lacking.

With the disappointment on the pitch and off it, Messi probably felt it was all too much to bear. After all, he still has his trophies and glories with Barcelona. Triumphs that are arguably greater. After all, what is more difficult to win? A Copa America where all teams were remarkably understrength or a Champions League that frequently pits Barcelona against sides with sharper quality and fitness? It could of course be argued that Argentina’s clear advantage over its opponents, in terms of personnel, should have guided the team over the line. But a penalty shootout defeat in the final is not a disaster.

In fact, Argentina had punched slightly above its weight two years ago at the World Cup with a shaky defence. With Messi as its leader, the Argentineans came up marginally short against what was a much better German side. The loss in extra-time was not a case of unfulfilling one’s potential; a victory would have only enhanced the team’s reputation.

Messi’s own reputation has been under the radar in recent months. A trial for the tax fraud case brought against him and his father by the Spanish government ended earlier this month and the verdict could be out soon. Although the public prosecutor has demanded an 18-month sentence for Messi’s father alone, the footballer has been under constant duress. Messi maintains that he knew nothing about the documents he signed as he trusted the people close to him. When news of the investigation came up in 2013, the Messi family paid five million euros as arrears and extra charges. He and his father have been accused of evading taxes to the tune of 4.1 million euros for their image rights earnings from 2007 to 2009.

An unfavourable verdict cannot be ruled out. While it would be unfair to cast aspersions on Messi’s character while we wait for the decision, it would not be a stretch to claim that it must have been a factor in his decision to retire. The heavy media scrutiny on his appearance in the court had provided an insight into the troubled mind of Messi. Only a few days later, he had to join his Argentina teammates for the start of their Copa America campaign.

If we are left with no definite answers about the factors that pushed Messi to retire from international football, speculation over his motivations may inhabit the same realm that surrounded the sudden end of another great’s relationship with his national football team. With less than a year to go for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Johan Cruyff sent shockwaves in the football world by announcing that he would not represent the Netherlands at the tournament. The legendary playmaker never played again for his national team.

Speculations were rife that Cruyff, an openly liberal man, chose to give the World Cup a miss because he disapproved of the Argentinean military junta. Others suggested his wife had persuaded him to stop representing the country. There were also rumours of a disagreement between him and the Dutch football federation over a sponsorship deal. Speculations abounded but none of them came closer to the truth.

Cruyff finally broke silence on the matter in 2008. He revealed that he and his family had survived a kidnapping attempt in Barcelona. Shaken by the incident, Cruyff chose to put his wife and children’s interests ahead of his football career. Netherlands went on to lose the final in extra-time against Argentina; to this day, many maintain that Cruyff would have led the side to its first World Cup trophy.

Alas, it was not to be! Cruyff had missed his chance when he was part of the team that lost to West Germany in the 1974 final. Messi and his teammates were defeated by Germany in another World Cup final 40 years later. After Cruyff, it’s probably Messi who has been the most influential footballer at Barcelona. If Argentina loses another final in Russia without their talisman two years from now – an unlikely scenario, one must admit – their destinies would be firmly entwined. Both were the leading stars of club sides that heralded a new model of excellence in football; both of them have suffered a strange comeuppance on the international stage.

But perhaps, Messi will return. It could be that time will heal the scars left by his latest disappointment. Messi may not have always produced his best for the national side but his consistency was remarkable. Argentina the team will certainly miss him. The fans will probably miss him too. For his crucial penalty miss was an outlier; Messi’s marvellous free-kick against the US in the semifinal was a clearer reflection of the player he was in the hallowed white and blue jersey.

However if he does not come back, that moment of excellence shall endure in our memory. For he left us gasping. It was not a surprise that he had done it; rather, a wondrous reaction at the curious nonchalance with which he hit that outrageous shot. It was not something a level-headed man would accomplish. In that moment at least, the world’s hero was also Argentina’s hero.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.