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July 2, 2018

The love/hate relationship between Lionel Messi and Argentina

By Luke Christou

Lionel Messi saw any hope of carrying Argentina to World Cup glory slip away after falling to a 4-3 defeat against France in the Round of 16 on Saturday.

They were lucky to be there anyway. Argentina came within five minutes of failing to make it to the knockout rounds against Nigeria. Marcos Rojo’s 86th minute strike was enough to send the South American side through. However, it did little to mask the problems in the camp.

Prior to the France game, Argentina had managed just three goals in three games, despite counting Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero among their ranks, four players that managed 124 goals between them last season. Five conceded in the same three games – the same amount as Australia, Iceland and Costa Rica, all of which finished bottom of their groups.

Despite avoiding the embarrassment of going out at the group stage, Argentina still had it all to do. While France hadn’t been at their best, their two wins and a draw in Group C suggested that they would make light work of an Argentina side that struggled against Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland.

That proved true, with goals from Antoine Griezmann, Benjamin Pavard and Kylian Mbappé dumping the South American side out.

Another poor showing ended Messi’s chances of winning the World Cup and joining Diego Maradona in Argentina’s history books. Now aged 31, having celebrated his birthday in between the Croatia and Nigeria games, Messi will be approaching 35 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around.

Messi might still have the legs to make it to a fifth consecutive World Cup tournament, but it is unlikely that he’ll have the same influence on play that he currently enjoys by that point.

In Barcelona he is already viewed as the greatest of all time, having scored 552 goals and provided 241 assists in 637 games. He has helped the club to nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey trophies and four Champions League victories. But having failed to deliver a single trophy for Argentina, is Messi as loved in his home nation?

How does Argentina feel about Lionel Messi?

There is definitely some resentment there from football fans in Argentina. Despite approaching the age at which many footballers call time on their careers, Messi continues to perform at the highest level for Barcelona. However, he has never quite reached the same level on the international stage.

Messi has 100 goals in 125 Champions League games – he is guaranteed to provide at least one goal or assist in each game. In the World Cup, he has scored six goals in 18 games, or one in every three.

The difference in class between Messi for club and Messi for country are noticeable. However, rather than considering the quality of the squad around him, or playstyle of the coach, many see this as a lack of effort, or lack of desire to play for his country.

Speaking to The Guardian during the World Cup qualifiers, one Argentine fan said:

“Where is Barcelona? It’s in Europe. It’s a different city in a different country. He made all those fans happy but not us. We want him to win for us.

“Truly, this is Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup: the last chance he has to be a legend; the last chance he has to be a national hero; the last chance he has to achieve Jesus Christ status.”

However, while Argentinians are keen to see Messi fulfil his potential, some are more understanding than others.

The fact of the matter is, one player does not make up a team. Messi can only perform if those around him help him to do so, one fan told Verdict.

“He’s trying really hard to succeed in the national team, yet somehow he can’t. It’s not only him, but the team as well that relies too much on him to perform,”

“That he’s better for Barcelona is down to the fact that he has much more time to get to know his teammates and that there isn’t pressure on him to win the game alone.”

Anger towards the player is largely down to frustration. However, once Argentina gets over the disappointment of missing out on ending their 32 year wait for another World Cup trophy, Messi will resume his position as a national treasure.

Although, his latest failure could mean that he never reaches the status of the last man to win Argentina the World Cup, Diego Maradona.

“He’s [Messi’s] loved. Yet there are people that saw Maradona play who insist that Messi must win a World Cup to be viewed as the best, considering football is such an important thing here.”

Maradona’s influence

Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winner Maradona seems to be among those that are less understanding. The former striker has taken many opportunities to question Messi’s abilities and leadership qualities.

Among his many comments, Maradona has said:

“He’s a really good person, but he has no personality. He lacks character to be a leader.”

“It’s logical that he’s come in for flak, it’s easy to explain. We’ve got the best player in the world, who goes and scores four goals against Real Sociedad, and then he comes here and doesn’t touch the ball. You’re left saying to yourself, ‘Dammit, are you Argentinian or Swedish?’”

As the man that delivered Argentina the 1986 World Cup, a trophy that they have failed to win again since, Maradona’s words hold weight in the South American country.

Yet, after witnessing Diego Maradona’s antics in the crowd during the Nigeria game, perhaps the rambling of a madman isn’t the best way to judge Argentina’s love for Messi. Especially when the World Cup that he gave Argentina relied largely on the referee missing his Hand of God goal, which unfairly sent them through to the semi-finals at England’s expense. (But then, perhaps as an England fan I’m not the best person to judge either).

However, Maradona isn’t the only Argentine legend to have questioned Messi’s ability.

Gabriel Batistuta, who scored 54 goals for Argentina in 77 games, told Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport:

“Diego was the best ever. Diego also represented Argentinians in many things, not just football. He has charisma, talent and rare invention,

“Messi, even if he’s technically as good – or maybe even better – can’t surpass him. Lionel doesn’t have Maradona’s charisma.

“There were doubts about Messi in the past, in one way or another, but now there’s no longer a debate. Technically, he’s perfect; he’s scored more goals than anyone. But for me, he’s not Diego, and he probably never will be.”

Money talks

If you look at the best player for each national team, they tend to attract their fair share of national sponsors.

Neymar, Brazil’s answer to Messi, has yet to win the nation a major trophy. However, he is still idolised in the South American country.

Neymar has counted many Brazilian brands among his sponsors, including airline Gol, coffee brand Café Pilao and beer company Proibida. Likewise, Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s football king, is currently partnered with DHL, Vodafone and Pepsi in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Messi is one of the world’s most sponsored players. He has attracted global brands like Adidas, watchmakers Audemars Piguet and electronics giant Samsung, among others.

Interestingly, he doesn’t receive quite the same reception from brands in his home nation.

According to data from sports market intelligence company Sportcal, no Argentine company has ever sponsored the Barcelona forward. Whether that’s any indication of a fractured relationship is unclear. However, it certainly seems to suggest that there are stronger feelings towards him elsewhere.

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