The Unappreciated Genius
After another defeat in a final, the Argentinian public is losing patience with Lionel Messi
Since July 4, when Argentina lost to Chile in the final of the Copa América– their fifth defeat in the final in the last eight tournaments they’ve played, although getting to that stage confirmed them at number 1 in the Fifa rankings – many in Argentina don’t really care any more whether Lionel Messi is a genius or not.
In his own country, he is bound to the image of the defeat, for in Argentina a whole generation exists that hasn’t seen the national side win a senior trophy. Argentina haven’t won anything since the side of Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone, Claudio Caniggia, Oscar Ruggeri and Sergio Goycochea lifted the Copa América in Ecuador in 1993. They had also succeeded two years earlier in Chile.
Not only are more and more people pointing out that he doesn’t sing the national anthem – the lyrics of which haven’t been heard in stadiums for years – but even his grandfather Antonio Cuccittini admitted that Messi, and the rest of the side, weren’t up to scratch in that final.
Messi has asked for time to consider his future with the national side and it seems likely he will play just the World Cup qualifiers and - if it goes ahead - the special centenary Copa América in the USA next year, while skipping certain friendlies, ostensibly to concentrate on Barcelona but also to stay out of the glare of criticism back home.
“I don’t want to be Messi, I want to be myself and this doesn’t look like an easy thing to be,” said Lucas Biglia after the penalty shoot-out defeat to Chile. He was Messi’s teammate not only at the 2014 World Cup and in the Copa América, but also in happier times, such as in the Netherlands in 2005 when Argentina won the Under-20 World Cup and Diego Maradona asked for Messi’s number.
Messi, Biglia said, wept all the way from the Estadio Nacional to the hotel where the team was staying in the Santiago district of Vitacura. None of his teammates spoke to him because they didn’t know what to say, and those who know him best believe it’s best to leave him alone in times like that. A hint of that was given in the immediate aftermath of the shoot-out: as the other players embraced, Messi kept himself apart with his head bowed.
It’s not new for Messi to cry inconsolably. He has always lived under immense pressure and suffered terribly when he failed to live up to his targets. In Guillem Balague’s book Messi, the coach Fernando Signorini revealed that after the 4-0 defeat to Germany in the 2010 World Cup, he lay between two benches in the dressing room and sobbed.
Signorini also spoke of how in training he would try to steal the ball from the players while acting distracted and paying little attention to them. When he tried the same with Messi, he jinked past him and continued his way with the ball still at his feet. Nobody else could do that.
But for many Argentinians, none of these things matter. In their eyes Messi is somehow heartless, a player who came into the team in an almost mechanical way and who cares about winning only to enhance his own record book – as though he didn’t already have enough titles, or as though he didn’t realise results with the national team can do for his status in football’s pantheon.
Few remember how Messi made his debut for the national side, that his father had sent DVDs to Marcelo Bielsa’s assistant Claudio Vivas which had been ignored until Cesc Fàbregas, having helped Spain win the Under-17 World Cup in 2003, told the Argentina coach Hugo Tocalli that Argentina would have won if they’d picked a player he played with at Barcelona.
Messi has never wanted to play for any national team other than Argentina. “He’s the most Argentinian of all the Argentinian players I’ve met,” said the Mundo Deportivo journalist Cristina Cubero, who has covered Barça and Espanyol for three decades. He eats Argentinian food, watches Argentinian television programmes online and has no trace of a Catalonian accent.
But none of that matters when it comes to making a dispassionate analysis. A YouTube video posted by the coach Marcos Reina shows why Messi can’t perform as well for Argentina as he does for Barcelona: he doesn’t get the ball back in the same way, doesn’t touch the ball enough. There simply isn’t the fluidity or the practised flow he enjoys with Barcelona. It’s true that Messi averages just 0.45 goals per game for Argentinian as opposed to 0.82 per match for Barcelona, but then he tends to play further from goal for Argentina in a less-free scoring side. And he still has 46 goals in 103 games for the national team, more than Maradona, more than Hernán Crespo, more than anybody apart from Gabriel Batistuta: with 11 more goals he’ll pass him. Yet that, somehow, isn’t enough.
What if Gonzalo Higuaín had taken that late chance? What if Argentina had won on penalties? Would it all then have been different? Does nobody remember that Messi was the only Argentinian to score his penalty? Did nobody see the look of concern on his face as he left the pitch at half-time because he couldn’t see his family, perhaps intuiting the truth: that they’d been attacked and had had to move inside for safety?
It’s not enough. Even though many already understand that he can’t and won’t be Diego Maradona – simply because he is a different human being in different circumstances in a different time, that he didn’t protest when taking a blow to the stomach from Gary Medel, and that he would have been a world champion had Higuaín, Rodrigo Palacio or he himself taken clear chances in the 2014 final.
For many Argentinians who wanted him to be a new Maradona, his image is already that of a loser, or at least of somebody who doesn’t stand up against adversity, is unable to react, surrenders in certain situations and so isn’t a saviour – merely an extremely good player capable of flashes of skill at certain moments.
They don’t care about his willingness to keep on turning out for Argentina, jeopardising his prestige, risking defeats that make him weep for hours or about his vomiting on the pitch or about performances such as the one in infernal heat in Barranquilla when he turned around a difficult situation in a World Cup qualifier against Colombia or about the fact that he is the one who fights for good contracts and working conditions for his team mates.
They don’t seem to care either about the tactical aspect: the position that Messi has to take in the field. He plays higher up in the Barcelona team but has to come deeper for Argentina, his game changed by the inadequacies of his teammates and the system in which he finds himself, something that – it’s becoming more and more obvious – is having a detrimental affect on his own performances.
For Argentina, with less time to work together and, as a consequence, less opportunity to develop a mechanisation of inter-movement, only one coach so far, Alejandro Sabella (2011-14), has found the right role for Messi. He had his side press about three-quarters of the way up the pitch, creating a short path to goal for Messi so he wouldn’t exhaust himself and, at the same time, ensuring there would always be team mates to support him, offering passing options.
Because of external circumstances – the injuries to Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María – and the Argentinian fear of losing, Sabella made changes to the system, both against Switzerland in the second round of the World Cup and against Bosnia-Herzegovina. That frustrated Messi to such an extent that he expressed his belief that a more adventurous style was needed. In was a similar story in the Copa América: after the 6-1 win over Paraguay, Di María was injured and Gerardo Martino adopted an attitude of caution for the final.
Could Messi quit the Argentina team, sick of the constant criticism? Someone once said that his relationship with Argentinian society is that of a son we have only discovered when he is already an adult and we are forced to learn how to relate to him without having a shared history as a starting point.
Messi’s football-playing foundation wasn’t built in Argentina, although he still plays today as he did in Rosario as a kid, and he doesn’t have his own group of fans backing him up like some others do. He has always been a stranger to many Argentinians, and if such figures as Carlos Gardel, Che Guevara, Jorge Luis Borges or José de San Martín had to die in the exile, it may be that Messi will also end up banished.
Or maybe this is just a part of an eternal game of contradictions that will ultimately end in success, as Biglia suggested a few days after Javier Mascherano had termed his time playing for the Argentina national team as “a torture”. “Maybe all this suffering,” he said, “will bring something very significant in the future: who knows?”
As the popular tango “Naranjo en flor” [Orange Tree in Bloom] has it, “First one has to know suffering, then how to love, then how to leave, and at the end to walk without a thought.”