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Messi's Complicated Relationship with Argentina

In the ever-changing landscape of football, there has been one constant. For 15 years, Lionel Messi has displayed an unrivaled dominance on the pitch; his success with Barcelona has been unparalleled. But World Cup glory continues to elude him. In the eyes of many Argentines, his failure to deliver the biggest prize in football may diminish his legacy.

The New Maradona?

Throughout his career, Messi has always been compared to Diego; after all, Maradona is the greatest player in Argentina’s history. Growing up in Rosario, Messi began his football journey at Newell’s Old Boys’ youth team the same year that Maradona’s stint with the senior club ended. But the parallels don’t stop there; Messi has similar playmaker skills, wears the same number, and has the same diminutive physique as the venerated Maradona.

Just by virtue of his appearance, Messi seemed to have been destined for greatness, and from a young age, it was clear that he had talent in abundance. Through family ties, a trial with Barcelona, the club where Maradona began his European odyssey, was arranged. After initial reluctance, Barcelona signed him on a napkin, and the Lionel Messi legend began.

Being Immortal in Maradona’s World

At the U-20 World Cup in 2005, the youngster was an unknown commodity. Many of his teammates were still plying their trade in Argentina, and Sergio Agüero (who was playing for Independiente at the time) later revealed that he didn’t even know Messi’s name. That changed rapidly when Messi took home the Golden Boot and Golden Ball as La Albiceleste hoisted the trophy. A star was born and with it, the hope from many in Argentina that a new Maradona was waiting in the wings.

Things could have been quite different, however. Through a Catalan great-grandfather, Messi could have represented Spain and even Italy at the international level, but he chose the country of his birth, stating in his book: “I love Argentina and these are the only colors I want to wear.”

But it seems that love is not enough, and many of his results-driven compatriots struggle to reciprocate that same level of affection. In a country that produced Diego Maradona, a man so exalted they call him Dios, it was always going to take something special to be put on the same pedestal. Unfortunately for Messi, his European success doesn’t bear the same significance back home; it has always been a case of World Cup or bust (it also doesn’t help that Argentina has failed to win the Copa América after reaching the final three times with Messi).

Tarnished Legacy

Messi’s international career has been nothing short of a tragedy, but there have been occasions when the six-time Ballon d’Or winner stepped up when his country needed him most. Such as in 2017, with Argentina on the verge of missing out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Messi put the underperforming team on his back and scored a hat trick against Ecuador to keep the dream alive.

Although widely regarded as one of the best players to ever grace a football pitch, the Messiah hasn’t lived up to the expectations on the international stage. At 33, his chance to achieve what Maradona did for Argentina may be slipping away. Will Qatar (or perhaps next year’s Copa América) provide absolution?

 

Illustration by @inakivector.

This story was featured in one of our newsletters.