When doing discussions or debates about the greatest players ever, soccer fans and pundits will often indicate tangible achievements: trophies, individual accolades, or scoring records.
What’s often overlooked in those discussions would be the player’s intangible achievements – how they make fans feel and the emotions they stir up if they take to the pitch.
Few nationalities feel soccer a lot more than Argentines, which has been abundantly apparent throughout the national team’s run to Sunday’s World Cup final, having an estimated 40,000 fans, vociferous within their support, traveling to Qatar for the tournament.
After Argentina’s semifinal win over Croatia, one Argentine journalist from national broadcaster TVP decided to provide Messi a note with her final question in the mixed zone instead of asking him a question.
“The World Cup final is coming, and, of course, all Argentines wish to win, but I simply wanted to share with you that irrespective of the result, there’s something that nobody can remove from you, and that is that you have touched every single one folks,” Sofia Martinez said.
“There’s no child that doesn’t have your jersey, be it authentic or perhaps a fake; truly, you have touched everyone’s lives, and that, for me personally, is greater than winning a World Cup. Nobody will take that from you.
“It is gratitude for such a great moment of joy that you have directed at so many people, and I am hoping you take these words to heart because I believe that is more important than winning a World Cup.”
Her words will more than likely resonate with many of the Argentine population as Messi’s performances for the national team in recent years have lifted him to a godlike status.
“The only path where that love would change is for the higher when they win,” Argentine journalist Santi Bauzá tells CNN.
“Because I think that what he has achieved to date at this World Cup, basically doing what his fiercest critics have now been demanding from him for so long, to finally become that man who can solve each game for Argentina, who can appear at the toughest moments and always, always deliver.
“It had been kind of like an impossible standard to meet up, and he still met it. So Personally, I think this specific World Cup will keep hanging on in the memories of Argentines, whatever happens on Sunday.”
The weight of expectation
However, it hasn’t been this way, and Messi has endured his share of heartbreak in an Argentina shirt.
Three defeats in major finals in the space of just three years – the 2014 World Cup and 2015 and 2016 Copa Américas – unsurprisingly wounded Messi, causing him to announce his retirement from international football.
For parts of Messi’s Argentina career, particularly in a few of the earlier years, there was a lingering narrative that Argentine fans were indifferent towards their star player, maybe even cold, amid accusations that he never gave his all for the famous blue and white shirt, as well as that he felt more Catalan than Argentine after moving to Barcelona at this type of young age.
“The important thing word I believe listed here is a minority,” Bauzá says. “But the fact remains that there was an amount of time in which there was a group of people here in Argentina that thought Messi was not likely fit to wear the shirt of the national team simply because they felt he wasn’t Argentine enough.
“If I had to pinpoint a specific moment where that feeling was probably most prevalent, it was the 2011 Copa America held in Argentina. There have been plenty of desires for that team and designed for Messi, who had just come off emphatically winning the Champions League for Barcelona – and in the quarterfinals, they certainly were playing in his province in Santa Fe.
“Argentina faced Uruguay; they drew, then lost on penalties. In the preview of this game, the reaction was very lukewarm once the stadium announced Messi’s name. But once the stadium announced [Carlos] Tevez’s name, who had been a lot more popular than Messi in those days, the stadium absolutely rocked.
“But by the finish of this final whistle, by full-time Argentina lost, Messi was booed outside the stadium, in his province, by his people, by Argentine fans. It had been a shocking sight, especially now once you use it in perspective.”
It surely didn’t help that since his national team debut, Messi has earned comparisons to the truly amazing Diego Maradona, who had been synonymous with his effort and passion on the pitch and, crucially, guided La Albiceleste to World Cup glory in 1986.
The rumor that Messi had even considered representing Spain over Argentina persisted, despite numerous denials. “I never doubted for an additional,” Messi once told TyC Sports.
Though those feelings existed among a small, however not insignificant minority, they certainly did not represent how most of Argentina’s 45 million soccer-crazy inhabitants felt about their captain, and which was never more apparent than when Messi announced his retirement.
In the wake of this announcement, it seemed almost the entire country united in an attempt to convince Messi to reverse his decision.
Fans organized marches and demonstrations in the streets, train and road signs were changed to plead with him to go back, and even then-president Mauricio Macri personally phoned Messi to try and get him to alter his mind.
Messi, of course, did emerge from retirement and finally experienced glory with Argentina after winning the Copa América in 2021. It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of this victory for Messi and the united states, with the win lifting a near-crippling weight off his shoulders.
“Now he owes nothing to no one,” Bauzá adds. “He even broke that 28-year drought with Argentina if they won the Copa America, which already has cemented him as a very important invest the country’s history by helping, being crucial towards winning an international title finally with the national team.
“But winning the World Cup could put him on another level … that could mean he’d complete his career at that point. It’s the one trophy that he has always been looking for.
“No, you’ve got expressed a wish for the World Cup quite like him. So, After all, that could be mission accomplished for him, definitely not in the minds of Argentines, in his own mind.”
A fresh Messi?
Messi has always been somewhat mild-mannered on the pitch, particularly in comparison with Maradona’s famed temperament. This partly contributed to the accusations that he didn’t care as much for his country as he did for his club.
Former Argentina midfielder Ossie Ardiles, who had been in the team for the country’s World Cup victory in 1978, says these comparisons, though perhaps unfair, are unavoidable.
“Messi has always lived in the shadow of Diego Maradona, the best choice of our last World Cup-winning team in 1986,” Ardiles wrote in the UK’s Daily Mail. “He could never escape the similarities. They’re both No. 10s, the best players on the planet, left-footed, and effective at magical, extraordinary moments.
“And yet they certainly were different when it comes to personality. Diego was very forceful, charismatic, and sometimes aggressive. Messi was almost timid and wouldn’t say much. Everyone was always buying a leader like Maradona, and Messi wasn’t that person.”
However, that has certainly not necessarily been the case in Qatar, especially during and after a tense quarterfinal, contrary to the Netherlands.
From cockily cupping his ears after rolling in his penalty in the shootout to repeatedly shouting “idiot” at Netherlands player Wout Weghorst during his post-match interview, it was an area to Messi that numerous hadn’t seen before, particularly with the national team.
“But in Argentina, many people loved this new image of Messi,” Ardiles added. “It wasn’t normal for him. It had been more of a Maradona reaction, which means individuals love him even more.”
Perhaps, the weight is being lifted finally. Year’s Copa América has unburdened and unleashed Messi in Qatar. Or simply, it’s only comprehending that Sunday’s final will be the last chance he gets to achieve his lifelong dream with Argentina, but Messi has certainly played like a man on a mission at this World Cup.
Bauzá says that different generations hold either Messi or Maradona in higher regard.
“Maradona wasn’t only a magnificent, magnificent player. He was also a cultural icon and a cultural phenomenon,” he says. “Maradona was this type of huge personality off the pitch as well and was so outspoken, so emotional, so near his people, so controversial as well, that for individuals who lived throughout that era, watched all his career, he left an indelible mark on them.
“Probably, if you question them, they can tell you that Messi won’t ever reach that because they think like Messi was never probably as near the people as Maradona was, they never got to see Messi on a pitch playing every weekend in Argentina,