Lionel Messi happy to swap his golden boots for trophy for Argentina
What does it mean to be Argentinian? Several World Cups ago the author and publisher Hernán Casciari wrote about trying to convey this to his young daughter, born and raised in Barcelona. Is it singing the national anthem every morning at school? Wearing a pin with the colours of the flag on independence day? Casciari put his finger on it: “Being Argentinian is spreading dulce de leche on everything cold, grated cheese on everything hot, lemon on anything that’s fried, and pulling a face of repulsion on anything boiled.”
Lionel Messi, having lived in Barcelona since the age of 13, famously still relishes milanesas (veal escalopes soaked in egg and breadcrumbs and then deep fried; apparently those of his mother, Celia, remain his favourite) and is often seen sipping his mate (the emblematic gaucho brew) or enjoying generous barbecues with teammates.
A memorable moment in the early days of big wins came when Barcelona won the Champions League in Italy in 2009 and travelled back to the Camp Nou to celebrate with fans. The entire squad took to the mic, one by one, and addressed a packed stadium mostly in Catalan – only Messi and Andrés Iniesta spoke in Spanish. Messi was a bit drunk and drooling in his Argentinian accent, until a protective Pep Guardiola gently guided him away. An enduring image for many reasons: Messi’s youth, innocence and joy for the game seemingly intact; and his refusal to speak Catalan.
Since then he has lived highs and lows, mostly highs with Barcelona and mostly lows with Argentina. In the very early days, he came close to playing for Spain. A special youth tournament was arranged in a hurry by the Argentinian federation and his father, with the aim of securing him as an Argentina international. And this Argentinian-ness chosen for him, perhaps also by him, has been a constant source of discussion, debate and existential angst.
The pride and joy that come from winning big international titles has been lacking for almost three decades. And for Messi in particular this is a pending assignment. Shortly before the Copa América his journalist friend Veronica Brunati spoke with him. She tells me he said: “I would swap all my Golden Boots for one trophy for Argentina.” Now Argentina face Brazil in Saturday night’s final.
The fact that a big win wearing the national strip has eluded him – even though he guided the country to a World Cup final in 2014, to three Copa América finals and to Olympic gold – has become a gaping hole in his psyche and the nation’s.
There is a narrative that something has changed; that he is somehow different, more comfortable in his role as leader, more integrated with his teammates. “Nobody disputes Messi’s sense of belonging in the Argentina squad,” Brunati says. “Today the country believes in this team. After 2014 Argentina stopped believing and the players themselves stopped believing. When he feels he fails, he can’t go on. If he’s great but everything else fails, he can. But when he fails, he can’t. That’s why this renovation was so important.”
The manager, Lionel Scaloni, the unexpected leader of this renovation, flanked by the low-key excellence of his assistants Walter Samuel and Pablo Aimar, has stated over and over that the only sure starter is Messi. Everyone else has rotated this year, but Messi has been on the pitch virtually nonstop.
“All he ever wanted to do was play,” says Dr Diego Schwarzstein, who treated a young Messi for a hormone deficit and has stayed in touch. “He wanted to grow so as to be able to play football. He’d come to my clinic and I would say to him: ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be taller than [Diego] Maradona. I don’t know if you’ll be better, but taller for sure.’”
Comparisons with Maradona are perhaps inescapable. This tournament the stretch has been a viral photograph of Messi’s bloodied ankle next to one of Maradona’s swollen and stitched ankle in 1990 – but although millions are deriding the false equivalence, it is inevitable that the ghost of Diego will loom.
“Messi wants to reach Diego’s emotional glory,” Jorge Valdano tells me. For years some of us have adhered to a theory that the stark contrast between these two renders Messi superior: the understated, normal guy, the silent leader, the reserved, even enigmatic, nature. Maradona thrived on conflict, Messi thrives on cooperation.
The thing Messi does share with Maradona is the label of genius. At this Copa he has shone. His former Argentina teammate Hernán Crespo wrote of the 34-year-old’s performance against Ecuador: “I’d never seen two assists in a single goal: he leaves Nico González facing goal first and then, tac, serves Rodrigo De Paul a pass which Messi himself could barely see. He finds an impossible corridor for the ball to reach De Paul. Only Messi could do that.”
Undoubtedly, we are seeing the best of Messi with Argentina. There is a semi-smile on his difficult-to-read face as he takes perfect free-kicks or embraces his teammates in explosions of celebration.
The challenge is to keep this for the final. Brazil at the Maracanã will be pressure like no other, and this sense of debt – to himself and his country – could easily have an adverse effect. This is, after all, the same Messi who used to vomit pitch-side before important internationals, the same Messi whose sense of failure after missing a penalty in the 2016 Copa América final led him to “resign” from the national squad.
Argentina as a country also wants this win more than anything. But the truth is, nothing will change for the nation or Messi with the result. Sustained glory and joy come in the moments of beauty, the sheer delight of seeing Messi play, loving the ball. He is ours and our national pride can be enhanced by this accidental fact, no matter what happens or which country takes the trophy. The ultimate freedom would be to release him from this patriotic duty and let him fly towards goal, in the universal triumph of art over flag.