How Argentina Came to Love Lionel Messi at the World Cup

I have to confess, not without shame, that I slept through the first game Argentina played in this year’s World Cup, in Qatar. When I woke up on Tuesday, at 6:30 A.M., I found my husband and my son in front of the TV, staring at the screen in a weird silence. The impossible had happened: Argentina, the country we are from, was losing to Saudi Arabia. The final score in what the Times called “one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history” was 2–1. I drove a bereaved eleven-year-old to school that morning. When I asked if he was O.K., as I dropped him off, he replied that he would be if we won the following games. I knew that everyone in Argentina was feeling the same pain, and an image of every town in the country drowning in sadness followed me through the day.

Four days later, in a match against Mexico, when Lionel Messi, playing for Argentina, scored the first goal, in the sixty-fourth minute of the game, my husband and son cheered jubilantly. On the screen, Messi ran toward stands draped in blue and white, the colors of the Argentinean flag, his arms stretched open, his face pure joy. His teammates mobbed him, while the fans burst into screams and tears. Argentina went on to win 2–0, escaping elimination. What else is winning in soccer? Winning is to be loved.

Messi, arguably the best soccer player in the world, won thirty-five major titles for Barcelona, the club for which he played most of his professional career, before joining Paris Saint-Germain last year, and won the Ballon d’Or, the international award given to the best soccer player of the year, more times than any other player. But he has never won a World Cup for Argentina; he is now thirty-five, so Qatar is his fifth, and likely his last, chance to do so. In the past, many Argentines accused Messi of not trying hard enough because he didn’t care enough about his country of birth. A new NPR/Futuro Media podcast, “The Last Cup,” from the Argentine American journalist Jasmine Garsd, counter-argues that winning for Argentina has been Messi’s dream maybe since he left for Europe, in 2001; that Messi, like so many migrants, wants to return home as the prodigal son.

The child of working-class parents from Rosario, the third-largest city in Argentina, Messi became a soccer sensation at a very early age. Salvador Ricardo Aparicio, the neighborhood-club coach, remembered the now mythic moment, during a game on a dirt field in Rosario, when a ball landed at the feet of a four-year-old Messi. Tiny and shy, he didn’t know what to do with it, so he let it pass. When a second ball came his way, he looked at it and suddenly started running, pushing it forward at full speed, passing every opponent.

Messi was thirteen when a scout from Barça—F.C. Barcelona—offered to bring him to Spain. Crucially, the club would pay for the expensive growth-hormone treatment that he needed and that the family could ill afford. (This was in early 2001, a time of economic and political instability in Argentina, which led to deadly protests, the fall of a government, and a succession of five Presidents in less than two weeks.) It was decided that Messi’s father would go with him, while his mother and his three siblings stayed in Rosario.

He was a rising star in Spain but still unknown in his home country when, three years later, the coach of the Argentina under-seventeen national squad, Hugo Tocalli, invited him to play in a friendly match against Paraguay. Messi startled home fans by scoring a spectacular goal. It was an exhilarating moment: Argentina had found the next Diego Maradona, whom many consider to be the best soccer player ever. But the shrewd, charismatic, larger-than-life Maradona, who died in 2020, carried entire teams on his shoulders, and secured victory after victory, both abroad (he brought Napoli from obscurity to the top of the European clubs in the nineteen-eighties) and at home. Maradona won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986, with two now legendary goals: the controversial Hand of God goal and the Goal of the Century. Messi delivered victories for Barcelona. He played for Argentina in the Copa América in 2007, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2019, and 2021, and in the World Cup in 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2020—and the team lost all but one of those contests.

It wasn’t just the losses that Argentines lamented; it was Messi’s perceived attitude. “He played like he played in Spain. When he lost the ball, he acted like it wasn’t a big deal,” Gerardo Salorio, who was Messi’s trainer in Argentina’s under-twenty squad, told Garsd. “I told him, ‘Here, if you don’t run, they are gonna kill you. Here, we play with a knife under a poncho. If you don’t run and score, people here will spit on you.’ ” Comments were vicious: Messi had no devotion, no courage, no feelings, no patriotism. The rest of the world saw him as a supernatural athlete, but local commentators and fans dismissed him as “no longer Argentine” and “a failure.” The crowds in the stands chanted “Diego, Diego” to tell him who he was not. “Maradona is our immortal hero, who not only gave Argentina a World Cup but did it by beating England” in 1986, Ezequiel Fernández Moores, a highly respected Argentine sports journalist, told me—a symbolic victory four years after Argentina had lost the Malvinas War, also known as the Falklands War, to the British. “Maradona is much more than a soccer player,” he said. “Messi wants to be just a soccer player.”

But that’s not enough for a country where soccer is so deeply embedded in the national identity. For a century, Argentina has been in thrall to the idea of a lost grandeur, a crucial moment in time when it was to become one of the most important nations in the world, but was somehow missed, crippled by politics or circumstance. Since then, the country has looked for its alleged superiority in the individual successes of scientists, writers, and sport figures. Friends in Argentina constantly ask me, “What are they saying about us in New York?,” as if everyone in the world were paying attention to the national drama. And every four years, at the World Cup, when the world actually is paying attention, it’s Argentina’s value as a nation that’s at stake. Messi’s “attitude” seemed to imply he didn’t care about that value as much. He had, after all, left the country. And Argentina, long the host to millions of migrants from around the world, has a complicated relationship with those who leave to make it elsewhere, either as political exiles or as escapees from economic straits.

In 2016, after Messi failed to score a penalty kick in the final match of the Copa América, against Chile, he finally quit. “I am done with this team. Like I said before, it’s been four finals. Unfortunately, I searched for it, it was what I wanted the most, and it was not given to me, but now it’s over,” he said. But, despite the years of opprobrium, his resignation shocked the country. Crying kids posted videos on social media begging him to stay. Commentators apologized for having been too harsh. “In soccer, you always get your revenge,” a boy said, addressing Messi in a video that went viral. “And, I promise, you will get yours. You will win the next cup. All I ask is that you come back to Argentina.”

Messi did, and, on July 10, 2021, Argentina won the Copa América, beating Brazil 1–0. It was a stunning win, not only because Argentina hadn’t won the title in twenty-eight years but because the game took place in the Maracanã Stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, the sacred temple of Brazilian soccer, where the national team had only ever lost a competitive match once, against Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. Messi didn’t score the goal, but he was the captain of the team, and, when the game ended, Fernández Moores told me, “The cameras immediately focussed on Messi as he collapsed on the ground, and the Argentine players, one by one, hugged him as if saying, ‘We did it for you, Leo.’ And Messi couldn’t stop sobbing.” He had finally won while wearing the Argentina jersey, but, more important, Fernández Moores said, the country had seen his pain. “All the suffering he had been carrying for not having been able to give Argentina a victory was in the open, for all to see, when he started to cry. For those who needed an Argentine Messi, there they had him.”

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