Copa America 2019: 'Messiah' Lionel Messi, Argentina and quest for acceptance at yet another major tournament

The goal had been coming. For all of Nicaragua’s defiance through the first quarter of the match, the air of an impending first blow became thicker every time Argentina held the ball anywhere near their penalty box. Lionel Messi, like a coach prowling the playing area in search of a sparkling talent, was present but not quite in the middle of things yet. Messi likes his moments on the periphery of a match. It allows him the breathing space to read and judge the pulse of a game.

 Copa America 2019: Messiah Lionel Messi, Argentina and quest for acceptance at yet another major tournament

File image of Lionel Messi. AP

Around the 35th minute of this friendly tie, he was on one of his trademark penalty-area strolls when Giovani Lo Celso wriggled past three defenders deep inside the Nicaraguan half. Messi took one glance at Lo Celso’s eyes and his muscle memory kicked in. Even in a friendly against the world’s 138th ranked side, Argentina found themselves in some sort of a tight corner and needed Messi to drag them out. Messi dropped between the lines, Lo Celso didn’t need a second invitation to slide the pass over to his sensei.

The Copa America starts this week in Brazil. Argentina, unsurprisingly, are among the favorites and yet look like they need divine help. Recent history isn’t on their side. They are the second most successful team – behind Uruguay – in Copa America’s history and have won the title 14 times. Only two of those have come in the last sixty years – in 1991 and 1993. You probably need a moment to breathe the absurdity of that in.

When you speak of South America in a footballing context, you think of the big two: Brazil and Argentina. Some of a certain vintage even think Uruguay. In a global setting too, they are always amongst the most spoken about, almost on a pedestal granted to a handful of the world’s elite. Yet, there is a unique fragility about them, a sense of edge that evokes awe and pity at once. Once again, they begin a major tournament in hope of a messiah.

Messi has played that role before, or at least tried to. In World Cups and Copa Americas, he has sat in dressing rooms full of highly-talented footballers, and still found all those eyes searching for him. It is partially understandable why. Stature is a by-product of ability, and it is debatable whether someone of Leo Messi’s ability has ever kicked a ball before. By the same token, there haven’t been many with the ability of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, or Angel di Maria either. But every time Argentina play, the focus, like it always has been, is squarely on their number 10.

Argentina, and indeed Messi, have stumbled, got back up, and stumbled again. They have three silver medals from four major tournaments in the last five years. Silver medals aren’t necessarily a sign of failure, unless you’re living in a world where a season with a league title and Champions’ League semi-final appearance elicits frustration.

There is a weird dichotomy about this relationship between Messi and the Argentine public. They beg for Messi to replicate his Barcelona performances in national colors. If he can lead Barcelona to so many trophies, why can’t he win one for Argentina? Going by pure numbers – in spite of the differences in personnel and tactical sophistication between the two teams, Messi has done an enormous amount for his national team. He has scored 67 goals for Argentina, more than anyone else, at a rate higher than most. Only three others are within 30 goals of him, and two of them have long retired. Messi dragged Argentina to the World Cup in Russia from a situation where it looked certain that they would miss the bus.

Yet, even in the face of such staggering records, there is a feeling of not quite. There still exists a popular opinion in Argentina that Messi isn’t one of their own. That he has spent his entire professional footballing career in the opulence of Barcelona evokes dissonance from a community which hasn’t quite known prosperity. The terraces of Bombanera and Monumental are aware of his radiance on the pitch, but they look at him as the rich family member who lives in Western Europe or the United States, and comes down for a yearly visit.

For Argentina to truly embrace him, he had to have risen from the back alleys, donned the red-and-white or blue-and-yellow before making the trip to Europe. The other guy, yes that man with the eerily similar physical and technical characteristics as Messi, did. Argentina loves those who publicly uphold their passion for the country. Messi never talks. He lives his public life like he plays his football – slippery, stealthy, almost invisible. In the words of the indomitable Wright Thompson, Leo Messi is at once one of the world’s most famous and most unknowable athletes. The other guy spoke, and is still talking, about Argentina and his love for it.

With every fall, even those at the last hurdle in CONMEBOL or FIFA tournaments, Messi’s already fractured relationship with his country has grown further apart. A Copa America probably won’t change it but it will go a long way as Messi’s one tangible gift to his nation. This isn’t the age for intangibles anyway.

Messi has tried, tried, and will try once more over this month. Once again, he’ll have to play under the weight of Argentina’s love for Diego Maradona, and their search for the next El Dios. Maybe, he doesn’t want to be their Dios, their Sun of May, and maybe, it’s about time we watch and treat him like an artist and not a messiah.

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 10:09:38 IST