When engaging in discussions or debates about the greatest players of all time, football fans and pundits often refer to tangible achievements: trophies, individual accolades or scoring records.
What is often overlooked in these discussions, however, are the players’ intangible achievements – how they make fans feel and the emotions they evoke when they step onto the pitch.
Few nationalities feel football more than Argentines, which was abundantly evident during the national team’s run to Sunday’s World Cup final, with around 40,000 fans, boisterous in their support, turning out in Qatar for the tournament.
After Argentina’s semi-final victory against Croatia, an Argentinian journalist from the national channel TVP decided to send Messi a message with her last question in the mixed zone, instead of asking him a question.
“The World Cup final is approaching and of course all Argentines want to win, but I just wanted to tell you that no matter the result, there is something that no one can take away from you and that is that you have touched every single one of us,” Sofia Martinez said.
“There’s no kid who doesn’t have your jersey, whether it’s genuine or a fake, truly you’ve touched everyone’s life and that, to me, is bigger than winning a World Cup No one can take that away from you.
“It’s gratitude for such a great moment of joy you’ve given to so many people and I hope you take these words to heart because I think it’s more important than winning a World Cup. ”
His words will more than likely resonate with the vast majority of the Argentine population, as Messi’s performances for the national team in recent years have elevated him to divine status.
“The only way that love would change is for the better if they win,” Argentinian journalist Santi Bauzá told CNN.
“Because I feel that what he’s achieved so far at this World Cup, basically doing what his fiercest critics have been asking him for for so long, to finally become that man who can solve every game for Argentina, who can show up at the toughest times and always, always deliver.
“It was kind of like an unattainable standard, and he still achieved it. So I feel like that specific World Cup will stick in the memory of the Argentines no matter what happens on Sunday.
However, it wasn’t always that way and Messi 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 the 2015 and 2016 Copa Américas – unsurprisingly hurt Messi, leading him to announce his retirement from international football.
During parts of Messi’s career in Argentina, particularly in some of the early years, there was a persistent narrative that Argentine fans were indifferent to their star player, perhaps even cold, amid accusations they allege. which he would never have given his all for the famous blue and white shirt, or even that he felt more Catalan than Argentinian after moving to Barcelona at such a young age.
“I think the key word here is minority,” says Bauzá. “But the truth is that there was a time when there was a group of people here in Argentina who thought that Messi was probably not fit to wear the national team shirt because they felt he was not wasn’t Argentinian enough.
“If I had to pinpoint a specific moment when this feeling was probably most prevalent, it was the 2011 Copa America, which took place in Argentina. There were a lot of hopes for this team and in particular for Messi, who had just won the Champions League emphatically for Barcelona – and in the quarter-finals they were playing in his home province of Santa Fe.
“Argentina faced Uruguay; they drew and then they lost on penalties, but in the preview of this match, when the stadium announced the name of Messi, the reaction was very lukewarm. But when the stadium announced [Carlos] The name of Tevez, who at the time was much more popular than Messi, the stadium absolutely rocked.
“But at the end of that final whistle, when Argentina lost, Messi was booed outside the stadium, in his own province, by his own people, by Argentinian fans. It was a shocking sight, especially now when put into perspective.
It certainly didn’t help that since his debut for the national team, Messi had earned comparisons with the great Diego Maradona, who was synonymous with his effort and passion on the pitch and, above all, guided the Albiceleste to victory. World Cup glory in 1986.
The rumor that Messi even considered representing Spain instead of Argentina persisted, despite numerous denials. “I never doubted for a second,” Messi told TyC Sports.
While those feelings existed among a small, but not insignificant, minority, it certainly didn’t represent what most of Argentina’s 45 million soccer-crazed Argentines felt for their captain, and it was never more apparent than when Messi announced his retirement.
Following this announcement, it seemed like almost the whole country was uniting in an attempt to convince Messi to reverse his decision.
Fans staged marches and protests in the streets, train and road signs were changed to beg him to return and even then-president Mauricio Macri personally phoned Messi to try to make him change his mind.
Messi, of course, came out of retirement and finally found glory with Argentina after winning the Copa América in 2021. It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of that victory, both for Messi and for the country, victory lifting an almost paralyzing weight. on his shoulders.
“At this point, he owes nothing to anyone,” adds Bauzá. “He even broke that 28-year drought with Argentina when they won the Copa America, which has already cemented him to a very important place in the country’s history by assisting, being crucial in finally winning a international title with the national team.
“But winning the World Cup would put him on another level… it would mean he would end his career then. This is the trophy he has always sought.
“No one has expressed the desire for the World Cup as much as he does. So, I mean, it would be mission accomplished for him, not necessarily in the minds of Argentines, but in his own mind.
Messi has always been a little soft on the pitch, especially compared to Maradona’s famous temper, which has partly contributed to accusations that he doesn’t care about his country as much as his club.
Former Argentina midfielder Ossie Ardiles, who was in the squad for the country’s 1978 World Cup victory, says such comparisons, while perhaps unfair, are inevitable.
“Messi has always lived in the shadow of Diego Maradona, the leader of our last World Cup-winning side in 1986,” Ardiles wrote in Britain’s Daily Mail. “He could never escape the similarities. They are both No.10s, both the best players in the world, both left-handed and both capable of magical, extraordinary moments.
“And yet, they were very different in terms of personality. Diego was very energetic, charismatic and sometimes aggressive. Messi was almost shy and didn’t say much. People were always looking for a leader like Maradona and Messi was not that person.
However, that certainly wasn’t always the case in Qatar, especially during and after a tense quarter-final against the Netherlands.
Whether it was arrogantly holding his ears after taking his penalty in the shootout, or repeatedly shouting “idiot” at Dutch player Wout Weghorst during his post-match interview, it was a side of Messi that many had never seen before, especially with the national team.
“But in Argentina, a lot of people loved this new image of Messi,” added Ardiles. “It wasn’t normal for him. It was more of a reaction from Maradona, which means people love him even more.
Perhaps the weight lifted in last year’s Copa América relieved and freed Messi in Qatar. Or maybe he just knows Sunday’s final will be his last chance to fulfill his lifelong dream with Argentina, but Messi has certainly played like a man on a mission at this World Cup.
Bauzá says they are vastly different generations who hold Messi or Maradona in high regard.
“Maradona was not only a magnificent, magnificent player, he was also a cultural icon and a cultural phenomenon,” he says. “Maradona was also such a huge personality off the pitch and was so outspoken, so emotional, so close to his own people, so controversial too, that for people who actually lived in those days, watched his entire career, he left an indelible mark on them.
“Probably if you ask them they will tell you that Messi will never achieve that because they feel like Messi has never been as close to people as Maradona, they have never been able to see Messi on a field play every weekend in Argentina, for example.
“I feel like if you ask someone younger, someone who hasn’t quite seen Maradona play but lived through the whole Messi era, they will tell you that, yes, he deserves that comparison, that he can stand right next to Maradona.
“It’s just different ways of looking at it and I feel like he can stack up with him without the World Cup, but if he wins the World Cup then the arguments of those who say it doesn’t become nearly useless.”
Win or lose on Sunday, there’s no doubt that Messi’s legacy as a hero is already assured in his homeland.