When engaging in discussions or debates about the greatest players of all time, soccer fans and pundits will often point to tangible achievements: trophies, individual accolades or scoring records.
What is often overlooked in those discussions, however, are the players’ intangible achievements – how they make fans feel and the emotions they stir up when they take to the pitch.
Few nationalities feel soccer more than Argentines, which has been abundantly apparent during the national team’s run to Sunday’s World Cup final, with an estimated 40,000 fans, vociferous in their support, traveling to Qatar for the tournament.
After Argentina’s semifinal win over Croatia, one Argentine journalist from national broadcaster TVP decided to give Messi a message with her final question in the mixed zone, instead of asking him a question.
“The World Cup final is coming and, of course, all Argentines want to win, but I just wanted to tell you that no matter the result, there’s something that nobody can take away from you and that is that you have touched every single one of us,” Sofia Martinez said.
“There is no child that doesn’t have your jersey, be it authentic or a fake, truly you have touched everyone’s lives and that, for me, is bigger than winning a World Cup. Nobody can take that away from you.
“It is gratitude for a such a great moment of joy that you have given to so many people and I hope you take these words to heart because I believe that is more important than winning a World Cup.”
Her 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 lifted him to a godlike status.
“The only way in which that love would change, is for the better if they win,” Argentine journalist Santi Bauzá tells CNN.
“Because I feel that what he has achieved so far at this World Cup, basically doing what his fiercest critics have been demanding from him for so long, to finally become that man who can solve every single game for Argentina, who can appear at the toughest moments and always, always deliver.
“It was kind of like an impossible standard to meet, and he still met it. So I feel like this specific World Cup will keep hanging on in the memories of Argentines whatever happens on Sunday.”
The weight of expectation
However, it hasn’t always been that way and Messi has 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 2015 and 2016 Copa Américas – unsurprisingly wounded Messi, causing him to announce his retirement from international football.
For parts of Messi’s Argentina career, particularly in some of the earlier years, there was a lingering narrative that Argentine fans were indifferent towards their star player, perhaps even cold, amid accusations that he never gave his all for the famous blue and white shirt, or even that he felt more Catalan than Argentine after moving to Barcelona at such a young age.
“The key word I think here is minority,” Bauzá says. “But the truth is that there was a time in which there was a group of people here in Argentina that thought Messi was probably not fit to wear the shirt of the national team because they felt he was not Argentine enough.
“If I had to pinpoint a specific moment in which that feeling was probably most prevalent, it was the 2011 Copa America, which was held in Argentina. There were a lot of hopes for that team and specifically for Messi, who had just come off winning the Champions League in emphatic fashion for Barcelona – and in the quarterfinals they were playing in his province in Santa Fe.
“Argentina faced Uruguay; they drew and then they lost on penalties, but in the preview of that game, when the stadium announced Messi’s name, the reaction was very lukewarm. But when the stadium announced [Carlos] Tevez’s name, who was back then a lot more popular than Messi, the stadium absolutely rocked.
“But by the end of that final whistle, by the time Argentina lost, Messi was booed outside of the stadium, in his own province, by his own people, by Argentine fans. It was a shocking sight, especially now when you put it in perspective.”
It certainly didn’t help that ever since his national team debut, Messi has earned comparisons to the great Diego Maradona, who was synonymous with his effort and passion on the pitch and, crucially, guided La Albiceleste to World Cup glory in 1986.
The rumor that Messi had even considered representing Spain over Argentina persisted, despite numerous denials. “I never doubted for a second,” Messi once told TyC Sports.
Though those feelings existed among a small, but not insignificant minority, it certainly did not represent how most of Argentina’s 45 million soccer-crazy inhabitants felt about their captain, and that was never more apparent than when Messi announced his retirement.
In the wake of that announcement, it seemed as though almost the entire country united in an attempt to convince Messi to reverse his decision.
Fans organized marches and demonstrations in the streets, train and road signs were changed to plead with him to return and even then-president Mauricio Macri personally phoned Messi to try and get him to change his mind.
Messi, of course, did come out of retirement and finally experienced glory with Argentina after winning the Copa América in 2021. It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of that victory, both for Messi and the country, with the win lifting a near-crippling weight off his shoulders.
“At this point he owes nothing to no one,” Bauzá adds. “He even broke that 28-year drought with Argentina when they won the Copa America, which already has cemented him at a very important place in the country’s history by helping, being crucial towards winning finally an international title with the national team.
“But by winning the World Cup, that would put him on another level … that would mean he would complete his career at that point. It’s the one trophy that he has always been looking for.
“No one has expressed a desire for the World Cup quite like him. So, I mean, that would be mission accomplished for him, not necessarily in the minds of Argentines, but in his own mind.”
A new Messi?
Messi has always been somewhat mild-mannered on the pitch, in particular when compared to Maradona’s famed temperament, which in part contributed to the accusations that he didn’t care as much for his country as he did for his club.
Former Argentina midfielder Ossie Ardiles, who was in the team for the country’s World Cup victory in 1978, says these comparisons, though perhaps unfair, are unavoidable.
“Messi has always lived in the shadow of Diego Maradona, the leader of our last World Cup-winning team in 1986,” Ardiles wrote in the UK’s Daily Mail. “He could never escape the similarities. They are both No. 10s, both the best players in the world, both left footed and both capable of magical, extraordinary moments.
“And yet they were very different in terms of personality. Diego was very forceful, charismatic and sometimes aggressive. Messi was almost timid and wouldn’t say much. People were always looking for a leader like Maradona and Messi wasn’t that person.”
However, that has certainly not always been the case in Qatar, especially during and after a tense quarterfinal against the Netherlands.
From cockily cupping his ears after rolling in his penalty in the shootout, to repeatedly shouting “idiot” at Netherlands player Wout Weghorst during his post-match interview, it was a side to Messi that many hadn’t seen before, in particular with the national team.
“But in Argentina, many people loved this new image of Messi,” Ardiles added. “It wasn’t normal for him. It was more of a Maradona reaction, which means the people love him even more.”
Perhaps, the weight being lifted at last year’s Copa América has unburdened and unleashed Messi in Qatar. Or perhaps, it’s just knowing that Sunday’s final will be the last chance he gets to achieve his lifelong dream with Argentina, but Messi has certainly played like a man on a mission at this World Cup.
Bauzá says it is largely different generations that hold either Messi or Maradona in higher regard.
“Maradona wasn’t just a magnificent, magnificent player, he was also a cultural icon and a cultural phenomenon,” he says. “Maradona was such a huge personality off the pitch as well and was so outspoken, so emotional, so close to his own people, so controversial as well, that for the people who actually lived through that era, watched alll his career, he left an indelible mark on them.
“Probably, if you ask them, they will tell you that Messi will never reach that because they feel like Messi was never probably as close to the people as Maradona was, they never got to see Messi on a pitch playing every weekend in Argentina, for example.
“I feel like if you ask someone younger, someone who didn’t quite get to see Maradona play but lived through the entire Messi era they will tell you that, yeah, he deserves that comparison, that he can stand right there beside Maradona.
“It’s just different ways to look at it and I feel like he can stack right up with him without the World Cup but if he wins the World Cup, then the arguments of those who say that he doesn’t just become almost pointless.”
Win or lose on Sunday, there is no doubting Messi’s legacy as a hero is already assured in his homeland.