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The pressure is on Lionel Messi to lift the World Cup in 2018 for a demanding Argentinian public and complete a football odyssey that began as a four-year-old street player in Rosario.
The story of who many believe is the greatest footballer of all time, begins in the wastelands of Rosario in Argentina, where a tiny pibe – a street footballer – jinks his way through dozens of children in a chaotic match. That pibe is Lionel Messi who now, at 31, has one last chance to win the World Cup and plug the gap in his collection of trophies.
“The Argentinians love this idea of the pibe, the kid who learned to play in the slums in mass games on hard ground where’s there’s no space – Messi absolutely fits that idea.” The words of Jonathan Wilson, a British football journalist who lived in Buenos Aires for three years and has been covering Messi for over a decade.
In his lauded book Angels With Dirty Faces, Wilson explores the history of Argentinean football and devotes an entire chapter to Messi, charting his fairytale journey from the streets of Rosario to become, in his opinion, the best player of all time. Messi has won the Champions League four times, La Liga nine times, he has five Ballon d’Or crowns, six Copa del Reys and three Club World Cups. But he’s never won the World Cup. The closest he came was losing the final to Germany in 2014. Messi also lost two Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016. The man with a nation’s hopes on his diminutive shoulders is aware of what those defeats mean to the Argentinean people. “I cried many times because of games like these, for lost finals, for what they mean and for not being able to achieve the dream of a country,” said Messi.
In his book, Messi, Spanish football writer Guillem Balague writes about the pressure Argentina’s number 10 puts on himself to deliver the famous trophy. “Failure to win a World Cup before he retires will leave him feeling that he has let down his country, his family, his friends, but principally, himself.”
Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and again in 1986, led by the imperious Diego Maradona, but have lost three other finals, in 1930, 1990 and 2014. This time in Russia, Argentina find themselves in what should be a comfortable group with Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. Messi dreams of lifting the trophy in July. “I imagine being able to be in that game, to win it, to be able to raise the cup,” he says. “It’s the dream I have always had and every time a World Cup comes it gets even stronger.”
Should he win his sport’s greatest prize, Wilson believes Messi will find himself finally accepted by fans in his homeland with whom he has a complex relationship.
While he is adored at Barcelona, a club he joined aged 11, there is a coolness between Messi and the football fanatics who wear the blue and white stripes of Argentina. Wilson recalls the Copa America in 2011, which Argentina hosted. “I went to a game in Santa Fe which is near Messi’s hometown Rosario, somewhere you’d expect to be a pro-Messi area. I walked to the stadium along an avenue where people were selling football shirts. It was very obvious that there were more [Carlos] Tevez shirts on sale than Messi shirts. When the announcer read out the teams before the game, he said, ‘Wearing 10, the best in the world, Lionel Messi.’ Then he said, ‘Carlos Tevez – the player of the people!’ The cheer was much bigger for Tevez than for Messi.” Wilson adds, “Argentinians want Messi to succeed, without question, but he’s not quite their own.
He’s not as popular as Maradona and never will be – unless he wins the World Cup.” Maradona occupies a special place in the hearts of the Argentinian people that is rooted in the country’s cultural heritage. Wilson explains, “There’s a brilliant piece from the Argentinean newspaper El Grafico in 1928 that says if there was a statue erected to the spirit of Argentinean football it would be this pibe, this street kid with a mass of untamed black hair, his cheeks worn down by eating yesterday’s bread, a mischievous urchin with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Basically, it’s Maradona.
That article appeared 49 years before Maradona made his international debut so when he arrived he was the fulfilment of a prophecy in a way. That’s a powerful myth that’s very hard to break. “Maradona’s story is better than Messi’s. His parents came from a tiny underprivileged village and moved to a shanty town in Buenos Aires. His father worked in a bone meal factory on a river that’s hugely significant symbolically to Argentinean history. Maradona’s had incredible highs and lows, he had to work for his genius – all that makes him a greater hero.
What’s Messi’s story? ‘Upper working class, his father was a factory manager, relatively comfortable background, he was really good at football.’ Messi fits into a common pattern in Argentina of people who the rest of the world think of as being great, but who Argentinians have a question mark about.” While Argentina fans may be standoffish about their current talisman, Wilson is quick to point out that Messi’s ties to his home are unbreakable.
“Messi has never played league football in Argentina and there’s a sense of distance with him, but that’s not to suggest he’s not utterly committed to Argentina,” he insists. “Yes, he’s lived in Barcelona since he was 11 but he is still one of the most Argentinian people imaginable. His accent is still very strong. The food he eats, the music he listens to, the films he watches – it’s all Argentinean.”
Playing to win This summer brings, in Wilson’s view, Messi’s last chance to win the World Cup. “He’ll be 35 in 2022 so realistically this is his last crack at his peak. Argentina have a small chance and finally have a good coach in Jorge Sampaoli.” If Messi does not triumph at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, will it tarnish his reputation? Will there always be a metaphorical asterisk next to his name? “If he doesn’t win the World Cup it matters in terms of his legacy in Argentina,” nods Wilson. “But does it detract from him, in my mind, being the greatest player ever? No. He’s won four Champions Leagues, nine La Liga titles, and he’s part of arguably the best club side ever.
His consistency is incredible. Maradona had four or maybe five truly great seasons but Messi has been brilliant for 12 seasons in a row. Plus he’s done it with a remarkable lack of ego. I’m not sure what else people want from him.” Wilson has been fortunate to watch Messi perform on a number of occasions. “When you see Messi live you’re aware of the privilege of watching him,” he says. “I actually keep a list of when I’ve seen Messi play and it’s 23 times now. There’s no other player who I’d ever consider making a list of how often I’ve seen them play.”
Wilson also wrote Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics in 2008 and offers an interesting tactical insight about Messi’s game. “There’s a very telling statistic about Messi which is that he barely scores in the first two minutes of games,” he begins. “If you watch Messi for the first five minutes of a match he doesn’t do anything, he just walks about. But what he’s doing is assessing the opposition and working out where the weakness is. Then he starts to play.”
And play he does, like a pibe in those crowded street matches in Rosario. In conclusion, Wilson recounts a tale told to him by one of Messi’s uncles. “Every Sunday in Argentina it’s a tradition that the family gathers for lunch. While the adults talk, the kids play football in the street. The Messi family followed this tradition but Leo showed no interest in playing football. Then one day, Leo, aged four, went outside to play football and was better than all his brothers. His uncle was shocked. This kid had never touched a football before – but he was better than everybody.”
END OF INTERVIEW