Messi competes against heroes of the past instead of the superstars of today
Lionel Messi’s World Cup ended in a solitary walk up the steps of the Maracná to collect his award for being the best player in the tournament. He kept his gaze downward, accepted the award with grace, and slowly descended back onto the pitch. Even after rejoining his waiting teammates, Messi remained alone—lost in disappointment and unseen anger.
It’s a feeling Messi has come to know well in the white and sky blue stripes of Argentina. Following their exit in the 2010 World Cup, fitness coach Francisco Signorini described Messi as “shouting, hopeless…almost convulsing” from frustration and sadness. It certainly didn’t help that the man whose shadow he cannot escape, Diego Maradona, was his manager; always there, looming on the sideline.
Maradona won Argentina a World Cup almost singlehandedly. The 1986 team was built to compliment his abilities and allow him absolute freedom. Off the field, he was deity to the Argentine people, who worshiped the unapologetically brash, macho, and vain boy from the slums as a national hero. He wasn’t Diego; he was Maradona, Dios, the chosen boy from poverty who ruled the world. He was everything Argentina wanted, and everything Messi isn’t.
Time has romanticized Maradona but Messi is writing poetry in real-time. Every scoring record imaginable has been crushed. He’s won 22 titles at Barcelona and enough individual awards to fill a museum. Messi isn’t chasing records anymore; he’s chasing his own shadow.
But something Messi is still chasing is an elusive title with Argentina, be it in the World Cup or Copa América, which he and his teammates will be among the favorites to win this summer. Maradona has the ’86 World Cup to his name. Messi, fair or not, is thought to need some sort of title with Argentina to step out of the shadow of Maradona. When you take all of this into consideration, Messi’s complete and utter devastation after losses with Argentina comes into clearer focus— at age 27, with miles upon miles already racked up on his legs, he knows his window with is closing.
Despite falling at the final hurdle, last summer’s World Cup felt like a new Messi. Alejandro Sabella did everything he could to make Argentina revolve around his star. He made him captain, he played 4-3-3, he made the entire system run through Messi and on top of it all, exiled Carlos Tevez from the national team.
Whether Messi was at least partially responsible for Tevez’s expulsion is up for debate. It was rumored that Messi didn’t feel like he and Tevez could co-exist in the same team, and that he wasn’t comfortable with the fact that Tevez was known as the “player of the people.” Tevez, like Maradona, was more easily relatable to the people of Argentina with his less-fortunate and bad-boy past than the international, polished superstar image of Messi. Tevez has denied he and Messi have anything other than a great relationship, and denied Messi having any role in his absence in the national team. After all, it could be argued that Tevez’s attitude and behavior in itself was enough to warrant not being called up by Sabella. However, suspicions couldn’t help but be raised that as soon as Messi gained more power in the team, Tevez was out.
Now, under new manager Gerardo Martino, Tevez has returned. There is no doubting he has earned it. Tevez has been the fulcrum of Juventus’ attack in their most successful season in recent history. He harasses defenders whether the ball is at his feet or not, working with religious zeal to win back the ball and create opportunities for his teammates. It has been thought that Argentina must start Messi or Tevez, never both, for they both want the artistic license to roam the pitch and attack where they see fit. Messi will win that battle every time, but Tevez’s skill and work-rate is likely to be too tantalizing for Martino to pass up.
If Messi and Tevez can work, that is, if Tevez is willing to sacrifice some of his own game to allow the new Dios to rule his domain, Argentina’s attack could prove unstoppable to even the most stout of defenses. Argentina’s strengths in the World Cup were the exact opposite of what they were in qualifying. In Brazil, they proved an incredibly difficult side to break down, but could not score despite an arsenal of attacking artillery at their disposal. Some of this had to do with the injury to Angél Di Maria, some of it to do with the fact that Sergio Aguero struggles for the national team in his own right. With Tevez back in the fold, however, Argentina’s attack could again become the juggernaut that it should be.
In the end, though, it will come down to Messi. The 2013-14 season was an incredible season by mortal standards and average one to Messi’s. The Messi of 2014-15 has looked fresher, more focused, and most importantly, happy. His shy, boyish demeanor often betrays the fact that he faces an inhuman amount of pressure to perform and to succeed. He has set the bar so high that he now competes against heroes of the past instead of the superstars of today. He will have to do so again this summer.
Messi will never have the bravado of a Maradona or a Tevez. He’s quiet, reserved, and seems to still possess an innocence about him, as if he doesn’t know or care that he is the greatest player to ever caress a ball. His feet are the only instrument of communication he needs. Every person from Buenos Aires to Sydney understands Messi’s language on a football pitch. In Chile, he will look to write another chapter in the story of why he is the greatest player we will ever see.