World Cup has revealed the real Lionel Messi

There has long been a certain amount of scepticism among Argentina fans about their nation’s captain. At this year’s World Cup his uniquely Argentinian performance has turned him into a full-blown hero at home.

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game during the 2022 FIFA World, Qatar. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game during the 2022 FIFA World, Qatar. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

For all its commercialisation football remains a simple sport: at its heart the beautiful game is an exercise in nostalgia. The late Spanish novelist Javier Marías, thought it ‘the weekly recovery of childhood’: that return to an exhilarating game of heroes and villains, winners and losers and unapologetic tribal loyalties. No other sporting competition does childhood wonderment better than a World Cup.

This contest in Qatar will be remembered as Lionel Messi’s tournament. Football has always thrived on hero worship: from cult players (those short on talent but long on personality) to the freakish genius of the international superstars. Whilst Messi sits squarely in the latter category – that reductively hollow sporting acronym G.O.A.T. (‘Greatest of All Time’) is sure to pursue him well into his dotage – there is something of the local hero about the diminutive Argentinian. His speed, agility and unparalleled footballing vision sets him apart from his peers, as does his modesty and ability to eschew the theatrical. He is a footballer straight from the pages of a comic book.

Messi has long had a reputation for elusiveness both on and off the pitch. Journalists have sought to extract from him something that might reveal his genius. But Messi will not be drawn. In Barça, his biography of the rise and fall of the Catalonian club, Simon Kuper writes, ‘Even now that Messi sometimes talks he still shows almost no inclination to explain either his art or his power within Barça. It’s not clear that he is able to.’

His silence, however, had been construed as reticence, especially in Argentina. Used to the aggressive, bombastic (and often delusional) pronouncements of Diego Maradona, Argentinians were unsure what to make of a player who did all of his ‘talking’ on the pitch. The fact that Messi had left Rosario for Barcelona at thirteen made Argentinians suspicious. As one Rosario daily newspaper, La Capital, stated, ‘That’s Leo’s unfinished business, never having played here.’ For many, Messi was just not Argentinian enough.

In the 1986 World Cup, Maradona scored two goals against England, both of which showed the dual characteristics of Argentina. The first (‘hand of God’) was picardía criolla (creole craftiness or cunning); the second was described by Maradona’s former teammate Jorge Valdano as ‘a work of art … it is skill, dribbling, la nuestra [our game] … in Argentinian football is that it is more important to know how to dribble than to know how to pass.’ Valdano was also unequivocal in assessing his country’s psyche, ‘Argentina is a country in which deceit is held in more esteem than honesty.’

For Messi, however, any deception has been confined to the pitch. (César Luis Menotti, Argentina’s manager at the 1978 World Cup, famously said, ‘A football stadium is the only place where I like to be deceived.’) His uncanny dribbling ability, to manipulate and outwit other players through feint and trickery, is a combination of balance, agility, speed, and a natural low centre of gravity. Some would argue that he is the greatest dribbler the game has seen.

Messi’s ability to uphold the most important tenet of Argentinian football has never been in question. What has, however, has been his temperament. In Argentina, he has been called pecho frío [‘cold-chested’], a term for players that lack courage and passion; those unwilling to ‘sweat blood for the [national] shirt’. For all his triumphs at club level, success with the senior national had eluded him, despite winning at the FIFA World Youth Championship in 2005 and attaining gold at the Summer Olympics in China three years later. The Copa América, the continent’s international tournament, at which Argentina’s record has been superior to that of its arch rival Brazil, proved a disappointment. Losing finalists in 2007, 2015 and 2016 seemed to reinforce any prejudice. Moreover, the 2014 World Cup, at which Messi had dribbled more than any other player in the tournament and had created more chances, ended in disillusion. His sole crime: to lose on the stage where Maradona had succeeded. Moreover, having been passed the captain’s armband, Messi had failed to embody Latin America’s cult of the caudillo (chief or strongman); a role that can be traced to the region’s libertadores (‘Liberators’) who had fought for independence in the nineteenth century.

In last year’s edition of the Copa América, Messi revealed himself in an incidental gesture. It was here that something crystallised – Messi’s Argentinidad (Argentine-ness). In the semi-final penalty shootout against Colombia, his former Barcelona teammate, Yerry Mina, had his penalty saved by the Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. Messi shouted antagonistically, ‘Baila ahora, Baila ahora [dance now, dance now].’ The Colombian’s exaggerated dance moves after scoring a penalty against fellow rioplatenses Uruguay in the previous round had riled him. Argentina went on to win the tournament after a twenty-eight-year hiatus.

Rancour, belligerence and vengeance, often with the addition of the conspiracy theory, are a fundamental part of River Plate football. Culturally, Argentina and Uruguay have never been keen subscribers to nineteenth-century Anglo notions of ‘fair play’, which has tended to be seen locally as high-handed and hypocritical.

After Argentina’s recent bad-tempered, quarterfinal encounter against the Netherlands, Messi broke off his post-match interview to castigate a Dutch player off-screen. ‘¿Qué mirás, bobo?, Andá para allá, bobo.’ [‘What are you looking at, fool? Piss off, fool.’] The penalty shootout had been marred by Argentina’s crowing celebrations in response to Dutch trash-talk and intimidation. The usual accusations of unsportsmanlike Argentinian behaviour abounded. (In 1966 Alf Ramsey, England manager, had called Argentina ‘animals’, so disobliging epithets are nothing new.) But in those few words, Messi had shown his national colours. He had returned home.

In leading Argentina to victory in the the twenty-second FIFA World Cup, Lionel Messi has offered his fellow countrymen something more valuable off it: suspension of disbelief. For a country that has been in economic free-fall – poverty at 40 per cent and inflation set to reach 100 per cent for the year-end – and beset by political uncertainty from within and without, the triumph in Doha’s Lusail Stadium on Sunday showed that the country can still compete at international level. Exhilarating though lifting the World Cup was, it will provide sweet but ultimately (as is the case with such spectacles) empty consolation.

Author

Andreas Campomar