Diego Maradona is the greatest ever footballer according to many erudite folks. He was a mad man on the pitch who would do anything to win. He says he had bronca, “anger, fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent … [it was] his motivator, his fuel, his driving force”. Just like there is the search for the next Pele in Brazil, there is a search for the next Maradona in Argentina. Many pretenders have tried to take the crown Ariel Ortega, Pablito Aimar, Javier Saviola have all tried and failed but only one guy has come close: Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini aka Leo Messi.
He was just right. Both short, very left footed (though Messi has vastly improved his weaker foot) with otherworldly dribbling skills and ingenious playmaking proficiency. The similarities were uncanny. The juxtapositioning went into overdrive when La Pulga replicated two of El Diego’s most famous goals of them all in the space of 50 days. Messi’s goal was as close to a clone to Maradona’s gol del siglo as it could get.
After two injury plagued seasons and putrefaction under Rijkaard, Barcelona made their B-team coach & local boy Pep Guardiola the new coach. Guardiola immediately set things right by getting rid of dead weights (Deco & Ronaldinho) and giving the keys to Xaviesta & Messi. Messi went from strength to strength winning 2 trebles, a domestic double and being national & continental champion multiple times along the way. There is little doubt that Messi is the greatest ever, at least at club level.
Unfortunately, at national level Messi has faced disappointment after disappointment. After a disappointing end on a personal front in a season Barcelona would do the national & continental double, Messi arrived in Germany as an understudy to Riquelme. Making his appearances of the bench, Messi put on the finishing touch in arguably the 2nd greatest team goal in the history of the world cup, a 26 pass move against Serbia & Montenegro. He would not even see time on the pitch as the Albiceleste were eliminated by the hosts on penalties.
It was the beginning of Messi’s international setbacks. We are all we aware of Argentina’s ongoing drought since Robert Redford made an indecent proposal to Demi Moore. The criticism of Messi has only been multi-fold given his supernatural feats for the Blaugrana. The theme being he’s not as good for Argentina as he is for Barcelona. This way he wasn’t too dissimilar to his predecessor of the no. 10 Barcelona shirt, the crooked legged genius.
A cursory observation of Messi’s tendencies reveals that he is not the remonstrating inspirational figure like Maradona or Cruijff. His strength lies in quietly leading by example. Another feature is that very often he’ll pick the best possible option and put complete faith in his teammates. An example of this is the night at Stamford Bridge, with time running out & under pressure from the Pensioners’ defenders Messi calmly found Don Andres on the edge of box, who buried it to send Barcelona through to their 2nd final in 3 years.
This is where the Bronca that drives players like Maradona, Pele etc helps them drag inferior teams past stronger teams. It's not that Messi lacks Bronca, it's just that it does not come game after game. What is Messi’s greatest strength i.e. team collective becomes a weakness when the guy he’s passing to is Higuain and not Suarez or Villa. This point is not original. It is explained in great detail by the great Brazilian Dr. Eduardo Gonçalves de Andrade aka Tostão to Tim Vickery.
Messi “lacks the personal transformation, the fury that Pele and other superstars had in big games and in the greatest difficulties. Pele was like a cornered animal, uptight when he was unable to do what he liked and what he wanted. He would try other solutions.”
Messi, then, is a player for whom the collective context is all important. This, in essence, is Tostao’s argument. He cites a moment in the Copa America final, in the last minute of normal time, when Messi at last managed to turn and slip his markers before launching a run that took him to the edge of the area – where he slipped a pass to Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left. Lavezzi squared, but Gonzalo Higuain arrived at the far post a fraction of a second too late to steer the ball home. Tostao calls Messi’s choice of move “correct,” but says that “the other option, to try and complete the move on his own, is what he should have done. Messi plays with Argentina as he does for Barcelona,” he continues. “A virtue in his club side, choosing the moment to go for the solo move, is a defect with his country, because it makes him trust too much in the collective game.”
I suggest you read that examination by Tostão. Though Argentina pretty much play akin to Barcelona, there are subtle differences that makes the Albiceleste look less threatening and sluggish than the intimidating slick Blaugrana.
Now this is not to say that Messi is completely faultless when it comes to international tournaments. Messi, in my humble opinion, is blameless in Argentina’s debacle in 2006 & 2010. 2007 was a collective failure again in which Messi shares the blame but if you prefer to scapegoat a 20 year old over seasoned veterans like Veron, Riquelme, Aimar etc then God help you. 2011 at home was simply unpardonable. Failure to score even 1 goal was just dire.
In the hattrick of failures in 2014, 2015 & 2016, it is not inaccurate to say that Argentina’s Messi has been merely B+ whereas he has been A+++++++….. ∞ for Barcelona. In hindsight it did not even need a beastly performance like the champions league semifinals of 2011 & 2015. Even an A— average would have seen Argentina win a hattrick of Copas. Higuian’s hattrick of misses has demoted Messi from being universally acclaimed to be the greatest player ever to just Cruijff et al endorsing it.
The pressure of performing for Argentina and losing 3 finals in 3 years in heartbreaking fashion has broken down even a stoic guy like Messi. A guy who did not cry after losing the world cup final was inconsolable. In the heat of the moment he has decided to retire from international football at just 29 years of age. As a Brazil fan, it gives me immense pleasure to see Argentina suffer but as a huge football and a huger Messi fan it saddens me that he’s being downgraded due to the situations where margins are wafer thin.
If Higuain or Aguero had taken their chances today, this tournament would have seen the single greatest individual performance since El Fenomeno‘s catharsis in Korea/Japan 2002. Not fully fit coming into the tournament Messi grew from strength to strength putting up an exhibition until the strength failed him in the final. Once things cool down I hope he realizes his mistake and reverses his decision to retire.
For the first time in my life I will support Argentina in 2018. I still want Brazil to win but hope Argentina win it with Messi, who has already mimicked Maradona’s 2 greatest moments, copies El Diego‘s pass to Burruchaga to put Vietto through to score the winner in Moscow.