With Argentina just about getting out of the blocks at this year's World Cup in Brazil, the spotlight has fallen on the same man it always does - Lionel Messi. The polarising player can cause joy in a single moment, or incredible frustration; which will it be at this World Cup?
Rewind two or three years ago, and everyone around the globe was fascinated by Messi. His beautiful goals, his silky skills and his delightful dribbles kept people captivated. Plus he seemed like a much better person than his rival Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo seemed arrogant, and it appeared that he cared more about tanning himself with his beautiful girlfriend Irina Shayk. Messi was the one who devoted extra hours to training, and seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. Then the rumour mill started churning.
Rumours of cheating on the mother of his child, combined with that of tax dodging and unrest in the FC Barcelona locker room has seen him go from a child with a halo over his head to the devil incarnate himself. While still performing on the pitch, Messi’s stock with fans took a nosedive. And it doesn’t help that with both club and international football, he isn’t completely welcome.
While you have a player like Diego Costa who has switched to Spanish nationality when he had the opportunity to play for his home country of Brazil, you look at Messi and think a choice like that could have been so much easier for him. Costa first played in Spain when he signed for Atletico in 2007, and didn’t even get his dual nationality until September of last year. Messi signed for Barcelona back in 2000, when he was just 13. Despite having been in Spain more of his life now than when he was in his home country, he chose to play for Argentina.
But while Messi is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, he is not seen with such adoring eyes in Argentina. Diego Maradona has referred to Messi as “his successor”, but Argentinian fans will never see it that way. Messi did not grow up playing in Argentina; he left when he was young. Where Diego grew up through the ranks or Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, Messi left Newell’s Old Boys when he was just starting to shine as a teenager. While Maradona and Messi both left for the same destination in Cataluña, Diego left when he was almost 10 years older than Messi was. Maradona had only just left Argentina to join Barcelona when he starred in the 1982 World Cup, and ironically got eliminated in the town of his new club.
Lionel Messi will look to lead the line for Argentina. Bleacher Report
Many articles recenely have pointed out that Argentinians do not feel the same love towards Messi as do for many other players. They prefer the likes of Maradona, Ortega and Batistuta. Most notably, they have experienced incredible highs and disparaging lows with Maradona. The fans claim to have "never cried with Messi". Messi is pilloried for never playing a senior game for a club in Argentina. His teammates all have; whether it’s Agüero at Independiente, Higuain at River Plate, or Di María at Rosario. La Albiceleste fans would even prefer Carlos Tevez to Lionel Messi for the most part.
Argentina is also a very competitive team, and the strike force is unequalled in world football. So, Messi is unable to have as much power as he does at Barcelona. Anyone who has rivalled Messi for talent at Barca has been sent to a new club; most notably, the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were on par with Messi at the time for talent and wages, and both of them didn’t stay for particularly long. When it coems to Argentina, however, in simple goals to games ratio, players like Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo surpass Messi, as does his current teammate Gonzalo Higuain. Messi is not untouchable at international level.
Lionel Messi in full flight for Argentina. ibtimes.co.in
That being said, Messi is a fantastic player, and as shown in their match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, one moment of magic has the potential to lift fans' spirits and change their opinions towards you. For most of their opening game, Messi was largely ineffectual, casting a lonely figure who looked like he wished to be playing with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta behind him instead of Maxi Rodriguez and Ángel Di María.
Will the fan opinion of Messi ever change? Maybe if he wins a World Cup, which after Argentina’s opening performance does not seem likely, at least this time around. One thing is for sure, and in the eyes of La Albiceleste, he will never be Diego.