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Why Argentina doesn’t love her best player.

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On the long avenue that leads through the park from the road to Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao López, in Santa Fe, Argentina, the smoke from the chori stalls mingled with a low mist to cast everything in soft focus. The spherical bulbs that topped the wrought-iron lamp-post gleamed indistinctly, as though swathed in a fine gauze. It was strangely quiet, as though the damp and the gloom had sapped everybody’s spirits, thousands of fans walking in near silence to Argentina’s second group game at the 2011 Copa America.

After drawing the opening match against Venezuela, there was real anxiety: fail to beat Colombia and they probably wouldn’t top the group; fail to top the group and the seeding that should have ensured Argentina and Brazil breezed through to meet in the final would be negated. Between the grills, men sold souvenirs from tables: scarves, T-shirts and, of course, replica Argentina shirts. The name ‘Messi’ did feature on the back of some of them, but far more common was ‘Tevez’.

When the stadium announcer read out the teams before the game, he introduced Messi as “el mejor del mundo.” There was a reasonable cheer. He went on: “Y con la 11, el jugador del pueblo, Carlos Tevez.” There was a great roar. The message was clear: Messi may have been the best in the world, but Tevez was the player that the fans loved.

This was supposed to be Messi’s triumphant return home. It was just 110 miles to the south that he first kicked a ball. Some say the boy’s grandmother made him do it; the coach Salvador Ricardo Aparicio’s version is that he was a player short and asked the boy’s grandmother if the five year old, who’d been kicking a ball against a nearby wall, would like to play. Everybody who was on that dusty field in Rosario agrees what happened next. The ball came to the boy, clad in a shirt several sizes too big for him. He prodded it with his right foot. When it came to his left, though, he started dribbling “as if he’d done that all his life,” his grandmother said.

People reacted as if they’d seen a vision. Here was a pibe in action, the incarnated ideal of Argentinian football. The archetype runs back to the earliest days of the sport on the continent, in the first decade of the twentieth century, when football began to establish an identity distinct from that of the British ex-pats who had established the game in the country. If Argentina wanted to erect a statue to its footballing spirit, the journalist Borocoto wrote in El Grafico in 1928, it should depict “a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with the intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down by eating yesterday’s bread.”

The true embodiment of the pibe, of course, was Diego Maradona, whom Borocoto described with eerie accuracy more than three decades before his birth. Even Maradona accepts that Messi is his equal for skill, and he has a similar urchin build. Notably, though, Messi’s hair no longer rebels against the comb—even if he has adopted a slightly more adventurous crop recently than he sported when he first emerged at Barcelona.

It seems a trivial point, but it’s not insignificant. Messi left Rosario for Spain at 13, and there is a sense that Argentinian fans still don’t entirely trust him. In that, he resembles another native of Rosario who found fame abroad and was never entirely accepted back home: Che Guevara. The move undoubtedly did Messi good, and not just because it secured him the growth hormones Newell’s Old Boys could no long afford. It protected him, both against temptation—Pep Guardiola, then the reserve coach, quickly stepped in when he started partying with Ronaldinho—and against the machinations of agents, which have hampered the career of Tevez.

But it also meant that every time Messi underperforms for the national team—or, more accurately, every time the national team underperforms with Messi in the side—he took the blame. That’s natural for the best player in the team: he was the star, the genius, one of the all-time greats; it was his job to drag the game the way of his side. The issue is, to an extent, generational. Younger fans accept that players leave for Europe as soon as they can; older fans find it hard to accept that the primera has become a diminished league. After Argentina’s draw with Venezuela in the opening game in 2011, one taxi-driver even claimed that Argentina would be better picking only four Europe-based players if they wanted the team to play with pride.

A few days later, I visited a vineyard in Mendoza. The manager asked what I thought was going wrong for Argentina. I suggested that Messi and Tevez were struggling to play together. “Then we must drop Messi,” she said. I began to put his case, but she cut me off. “Maybe technically Messi is better, but Tevez …” She patted her heart. “Tevez has spirit, and in the biggest games you need spirit.” The notion that Tevez was tougher or more passionate or more patriotic than Messi had permeated every region, every social class.

That was then. Three years later, Tevez isn’t in the squad and Messi carries the hopes of the nation. It may be that no side with a serious chance of winning the World Cup has ever gone into a tournament with so much riding on the form of one player—other, perhaps, than in 1986, when Maradona carried Argentina to glory.

Twenty years ago, international tournaments were our best opportunity to see stars based abroad, and you’d wait for a World Cup desperately hoping that the best players were in form. The injury that meant Michel Platini wasn’t at his best in 1986, Zico’s indifferent form that same year, the collective failure of the Dutch in 1990—all caused a real pang. If you didn’t see them at their best then, then when would you see them?

All that has changed, of course. The proliferation of satellite channels and streaming, and the overwhelming importance of the Champions League, mean that a player can have a bad World Cup and erase the memory two months later. It’s never been the case that a player has to win a World Cup to be considered great—Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, and Lev Yashin never won a World Cup; George Best and Alfredo Di Stefano never even played in one—but the World Cup certainly influences how a player is judged.

Lionel Messi will remain a great of the game whatever happens in Brazil, whatever happens in the rest of his career, but because he is Argentinian, he faces always comparison with Maradona. And the crowning glory of Maradona’s career was the way he led Argentina to the World Cup in 1986. All Messi’s titles have been won in Spain; it’s not that he is not respected back at home but if he wants to be loved in the way Maradona is, winning the World Cup would greatly help.

In the quarter-final of that Copa America in 2011, Tevez was dreadful, then missed his penalty in the shoot-out. The public began to turn against him. The following year, Messi scored a hat trick in a friendly victory over Brazil at Meadowlands. Public opinion began to turn in his favour. In the qualifiers, he was consistently excellent, if not quite at the level he produced at Barcelona then near enough to supplant Tevez in the public affection.

It helped that he at last had, in Alejandro Sabella, a coach able to see beyond Argentina’s array of attacking talent. Maradona and his successor, Sergio Batista, both looked at Messi, Tevez, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Erik Lamela, and Rodrigo Palacio and panicked. Both tried to squeeze as many of them in to the starting line-up as possible. And both created unbalanced, stodgy teams that were less than the sum of their parts.

Sabella, though, is a pragmatist, a man schooled in the best traditions of Estudiantes, the masters of anti-futbol. The term has come to refer to the cynical, violent approach of Osvaldo Zubeldia’s side of the late sixties, which won three successive Copas Libertadores, but it initially described the Velez Sarsfield of Vittorio Spinetto, whose sides were simply pragmatic, eschewing the tricks and flicks that characterised Argentinian football in the fifties. Others may dream of some fantasy Argentina in which half a dozen of their stellar forwards combine in a constellation of wonder, but Sabella primarily wants to win.

He has also made a public show of faith in Messi, as Carlos Bilardo did with showed Maradona before 1986. “Messi is accepted as the leader,” Sabella told Joel Richards in an interview for The Blizzard, “and Argentinians always need a leader, the father figure who does something for us. Our society is like that. In Leo’s case, the captaincy has done him good and he has taken on that responsibility. And what is good for him, is good for the team.” It’s since taking the captaincy that Messi has really flourished for his country, equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record for goals in a calendar year—12. At the same time, Tevez’s clash with Roberto Mancini, and his subsequent break from playing for Manchester City, gave Sabella the perfect excuse to leave him out.

Sabella began qualifying playing two banks of four – albeit with Di Maria as a diligent left-sided midfielder – with Messi playing off Higuain, and there remains a suspicion that is his preferred style. More recently, it’s said because of lobbying from Messi, he has switched to 4-3-3 – again with Di Maria as a left-sided midfielder, with Higuain as the central striker, Messi right and Agüero left. In reality, that makes Argentina more of a Christmas tree, with Javier Mascherano sitting deep in midfield, with Di Maria to his left and Ever Banega to his right, Agüero and Messi buzzing on front of them and Higuain as the outlet at centre-forward.

There is a neat balance to that midfield, Banega sitting deeper as Di Maria advances, with Pablo Zabaleta, who plays on Banega’s side, is a more adventurous full-back than Marcos Rojo on the left. Rojo is probably the least heralded of what might be Argentina’s preferred XI, but—in the absence of genuine star quality at left-back—his selection makes sense. For one thing, Sabella, having managed him at Estudiantes, trusts him. And for another, he can play as a central defender, so he is more than capable of tucking in to play as an auxiliary centre-back as the defence shuffles across when Zabaleta goes raiding.

The Messi-Agüero combination is intriguing, not least because in almost any other national team in the world, Agüero would be the star—and it is he, who as the former son-in-law of Maradona, provides the direct link back to 1986. Although Agüero is cleaner-cut than Tevez and doesn’t have the mane of unruly hair, he is a more authentic pibe than Messi, having played in Argentina before moving to Europe. Not only that but when, aged 15 years and 35 days, he made his debut for Independiente in 2003, he took the record as the youngest player ever in the primera—from Maradona.

But it’s the combination of Messi and Agüero that is fascinating. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Agüero prospers because opposing teams are so focused on stopping Messi. But if an opponent floods the three-quarter line and tries to deny them space, Argentina have the option of going long to Higuain. They also have runners from deep in Di Maria and Zabaleta; one of the great strengths of this Argentina is that it had attacking threats coming from a variety of depths.

Messi and Agüero have united to bring international success to Argentina before, at the Olympics in China in 2008, with a team that included Sergio Romero, Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Mascherano, and Di Maria, all of them in that putative starting XI. Back then, at least in the knockout games, Agüero tended to play as the central striker, with Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme behind him and Di Maria breaking from deep positions on the left. Messi was always more mobile than Riquleme, though, and tended to go beyond him to link up with Agüero: it’s that understanding that could make them so potent playing off Higuain.

None of which changes the fact that the role Messi will play for Argentina is very different to the one he plays for Barcelona. For his country, he is not a false nine but a more traditional attacking midfielder, something Sabella insists is inevitable. “We are lacking creative players,” he said in that Blizzard interview. “We are lacking those more cerebral players who make things happen, players like Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez. Historically we had those players, or at least that style of player. We had Aimar, D’Alessandro, Riquelme, Verón, Gallardo, Ortega… that kind of player with great skill and technique, and who created play, from deep or closer to the area, but who fulfilled that role. We are losing those kind of players. We can’t forget that Messi will play one way with us and one way with Barcelona. We have scored a lot of goals on the counter, but most of his goals with Barcelona aren’t like that, because they dominate possession and play in the other team’s half.”

Argentina’s style is more direct, less possession-driven. International football—given the brief time coaches have to work with their teams, the lack of opportunity for players to build up mutual understanding—is less tactically sophisticated than the club game. In simplest terms, Argentina will try to create a platform with seven outfielders on which the other three will perform—and very few countries can offer three such performers as Agüero, Higuain, and Messi. Lionel Messi doesn’t need the World Cup to cement his reputation, but winning one in Brazil would add a special luster.

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