Football

After two decades, it feels right between Argentina and Messi

After two decades, it feels right between Argentina and Messi
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Those of us who were lucky enough to be there will never forget it. Early in 2005, in the South American Under-20 Championships in Colombia, Lionel Messi wore the Argentina shirt for the first time. He had played one friendly for the Barcelona first team. Even the Argentina coaches knew little about him. But they knew that Spain were interested in having him play for La Roja. There was talk that he might be something special, and if the rumors were true, then Argentina wanted to make sure that Messi would represent the land of his birth.

At 17, he was two years younger than the other players and, at around half their height, he looked even younger. With his floppy hair and boyish air he did not cut an impressive figure. It was impossible to imagine him as a future superstar — until he got on the ball and all of us suffered a collective jaw drop. The way the ball was tied to his left foot was enough to make sure that everyone was paying attention. But there was so much more — his awareness of what was happening around him, the calm of his decision making, the clear impression that none of this talent was wasted, that he was all employed in creating a threat to the opposing goal.

It did not take long before our secret was out. A few months later he was the star as Argentina won the Under-20 World Cup. He started to make an impression in the Barcelona side that would go on to win the Champions League the following year. And he made his senior debut for Argentina, coming on as a substitute in a friendly against Hungary, looking instantly at home — but being quickly and ludicrously sent off when he tried to shake off an opponent who was hanging on to him and picked up a red card.

It was an early sign that his senior Argentina career would not be plain sailing. A feature of bar room debates across the planet has been the accusation that Messi could not be considered among the real all time greats because he had never ‘done it’ for his country. It always looked a harsh judgment on a player with nearly 100 international goals to his credit — and any remaining doubts have surely been put to bed by the current World Cup campaign.

Victory on Sunday against France in Qatar will silence the most vociferous doubters — who, anyway, have had to take on board last year’s historic win over Brazil at the famous Maracana stadium to claim the Copa America. It is clear, though, that the last dances of Messi’s long international career have been the best ones. Which poses the question — why is it now, at age 35, that Messi looks most at home in the Argentina shirt? How can it be that the last of five World Cups is his best?

There are surely two dimensions to the answer, the collective and the individual. One of the golden rules of football is that the team makes the stars. Individual talent shines brightest when housed in a coherent collective context. And Argentina — or circumstances — have often let Messi down.

At the 2006 World Cup, Argentina went out on penalties in the quarterfinals to hosts Germany — a match in which Messi should surely have come off the bench. A gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing proved promising, but then came the 2010 World Cup campaign, which ended up in shambles.

In the run-up to South Africa, coach Diego Maradona could not resist selecting Carlos Tevez. It unbalanced the side — and having Messi doing the fetching and carrying for Tevez made no sense. And once more, it led to an early exit at the hands of Germany in a 4-0 quarterfinals drubbing.

But it does get to the heart of a problem. In a land enchanted by Maradona, Tevez appeared as the hand-picked successor. His poor origins, his stocky build, his status as an idol of Boca Juniors — there was much linking Tevez to Maradona. Messi, meanwhile, had grown up in Barcelona and cut a distant, reserved figure. But he was by far the better player. This must have been hard for Tevez, who had broken through a couple of years before Messi, only to have his thunder stolen.

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They played together on home ground in the 2011 Copa America. The stadium announcers made a big deal of Tevez, giving him a huge build up as « the player of the people. » The fans considered Tevez, rather than Messi, to be the main attraction. The facts spoke otherwise. The team failed to spark.

Argentina came close in 2014, beaten yet again by nemesis Germany in the World Cup final. But that team was obviously running on empty, weighed down by injuries and end-of-season tiredness. After Angel Di Maria limped out of the quarterfinal they failed to score another goal.

And at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Argentina came nowhere near as they fell to France in the round of 16. The team was again in shambles, without the defensive pace to put into practice the idea of ​​then coach Jorge Sampaoli.

Now, there is no more room for ego battles and dressing room jealousies. Messi has the field to himself — and he is surrounded by players to whom these previous tensions mean nothing. Messi’s Argentina teammates grew up with him as an idol. All they want to do is make him happy. And if there have been changes in the context, there have also been changes in Messi. For a long time there was a feeling that his reserved, self-contained nature could have an inhibiting effect.

Imagine the situation of a young player called up by Argentina. His main objective in training would be to win Messi’s respect. And if Messi gives him no reaction, his self-esteem will clearly suffer. The switch was pulled at the 2019 Copa America. Messi was falling out with Barcelona at the time, and there was a clear sense that, for the first time, the national team had become his priority. He had clearly thought long and hard about what he needed to do to make it work, and Argentine journalists following the team during the Copa were struck by the change. Messi was a vocal, encouraging figure, and a willing spokesman for the group.

Di Maria, now one of Messi’s longest tenured teammates, made a surprising statement to the Argentine media. « I like this Messi, » he said, leaving the impression that he had not been quite as keen on previous incarnations.

And so Argentina’s current group of players have come to Messi and Messi has come to the group. Coach Lionel Scaloni made the point after Argentina had beaten Italy last June at Wembley Stadium in a match that pitted the European and South American champions.

« Messi feels comfortable, » he said. « We’ve managed to get the group to assimilate him as he is, and he feels that he is one of the group. It should be normal always, but it’s only in the last couple of years that this process has really started. »

And now, on Sunday, it seems that it has to end. We may not see Messi play another serious competitive game in an Argentina shirt. The journey that started back in 2005 may not have a happy ending — as defending champions, France should be considered slight favourites. But it will not end in tragedy. Last year’s Copa America win — endlessly serenaded by Argentina’s army of fans — has changed the mood, and taken away some of the pressure.

The likelihood is that Messi will bow out of the World Cup on a high even if Argentina are beaten — and he’ll assuredly join the pantheon if they manage to win.

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