Messi: The Leader Of The New Argentina

The pressure is on Lionel Messi to deliver on the biggest stage of all. Since being made captain things look rosy, and the comparisons with Diego Maradona in 1986 are unavoidable...

Last Updated: 12/06/14 at 16:44 Post Comment

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Perhaps the finest indication of Lionel Messi's greatness comes, rather incongruously, in the criticism he receives. This season, particularly as Barcelona's campaign reached its denouement, Messi's form has been critiqued, with discussions over burn=out, illness, lethargy and disinterest.

A reminder, therefore: In 38 appearances for Barcelona in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, Messi scored 36 goals. He also provided 11 assists, and for every 67 minutes the Argentine played this season, he contributed either a goal or assist. 2013/14 may not have matched the heights of the previous two seasons (which saw an astonishing return of 130 goals in 107 games), but this has by no means been Messi's annus horribilis - only two players in Europe's top five leagues (Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez) scored more league goals.

For Argentina, too, there has been a misguided denunciation of Messi's performances. "Doesn't do it at international level," was for so long the tedious and ill-researched opinion, but since the beginning of 2012 Messi has 20 goals in 21 Argentina matches at a rate of a goal for every 87 minutes played. That is as good as any other player in the world over such a period.

Has Messi therefore simply become a victim of his own, almost unprecedented, success? Rather than focus on his 21 domestic trophies, the emphasis is on Barcelona's trophyless season, and rather than bowing down to his four Ballon d'Ors (more than any other player in history), we instead centre on the passing of Messi's crown to Ronaldo in December. Even accounting for immediacy bias, it seems a wholly unfair rebuke.

However, while Messi may well now be unfairly judged against his past achievements, there is little doubt that on football's greatest stage, he is yet to shine. His only World Cup goal in nine appearances was the final goal in Argentina's 6-0 group stage victory over Serbia and Montenegro in 2006, and his country exited at the quarter-final stage in Germany, Messi an unused 19-year-old substitute as the hosts beat La Albiceleste on penalties.

Four years later and another tale of heartbreak, Messi breaking down in tears on the pitch after the Germans had again beaten Argentina, this time a 4-0 shellacking which underlined the tactical naivety of Diego Maradona. Messi showed glimpses of his obvious excellence in South Africa, but had largely failed to live up to his star billing. After a domestic season of 45 goals, matches against Nigeria, South Korea, Greece, Mexico and Germany had returned just a single assist. Argentina was left underwhelmed.

The underlying notion is that Messi has never really truly convinced the Argentinean public that he should warrant the status of footballing deity. He has understandably perennially attracted comparisons with the great Maradona, but whilst El Diez dragged Argentina to glory in the 1986 World Cup, his protégé is yet to make such an indelible mark on the hearts of an expectant public. Instead, the country's recent under-performance on the biggest stage has gone hand-in-hand with Messi mania, even if the two are largely mutually exclusive.

Further still, while Maradona was the poor boy made good, raised in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and gaining his football education at Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, Messi took a very different path. By the age of 11, he had been diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency and, with River Plate unwilling to pay for the treatment required, Messi moved to Barcelona with the Catalan giants prepared to settle all medical bills. It is not a decision that Messi's family could be attributed any blame, but has created an obvious fissure between player and fans.

Messi's inability to lead Argentina to World Cup success has been translated by many in Argentina as proof that the player has prioritised club over country, an unacceptable act of treason in their eyes, but this seems hugely imbalanced. "To see Messi cry in the dressing room, whoever says that he does not feel pride for his shirt is stupid," Maradona said following the exit to Germany in 2010. That the coach even felt the need to make such a statement probably tells its own story.

However, under the stewardship of Alejandro Sabella, there seems genuine cause to believe that Messi has found the perfect place within Argentina's team. For so long, Alfio Basile, Maradona and Sergio Batista had tried to utilise a system that incorporated both Messi's propensity to pick up the ball from deep and dribble and also Carlos Tevez's determination to drop back in search of the ball.

These were two markedly different players and characters, with the Argentinean public often favouring the evident passion and spirit of Tevez. A match announced in 2011 described Messi as the "best player in the world" and Tevez as the "the player of the people", a largely accurate assessment. Both wanted to operate from a classic No.10 position in order to be the principal influence on the side's attacking system, and it was difficult not to give the masses what they wanted.

Sabella's big decision was to drop Tevez from the national set-up, and the Juventus forward has not played for his country since 2011 despite scoring 19 goals in Serie A last season - this is a case of the team being championed over the individual.

Instead of operating with any false nines or the like, Messi has been given a free role on the right hand side of a three-man forward line which sees Gonzalo Higuain operating through the middle and Sergio Aguero on the left. Messi is given a free role to drift infield and dribble with the ball, with Pablo Zabaleta able to overlap as he does so successfully for Manchester City to provide the width when Messi moves elsewhere.

It is a strategy with which Javier Mascherano is fully in agreement. "If we want to do something big at the World Cup it will depend upon his contribution," the former captain said. "It's unavoidable; when you have a player like him you're going to use him as much as possible and squeeze as much as possible out of him."

It may seem like the obvious move, but Messi is now the axis of this Argentina side. He is the top scorer and also the creative influence, but Sabella's biggest statement is to make the 26-year-old captain of his side. Messi is not a natural leader, neither a motivator nor an emotional inspirer, but he may be a talisman.

Look back again to 1986, when Carlos Bilardo handed the armband to Maradona, and the similarities become clear. Maradona was intended to rally his troops with words but with his mesmeric actions, which spoke louder than any inspirational speeches could throughout that tournament in Mexico. Sabella's aim is to replicate such a scenario and the early signs have been positive - only one other player scored more often in South American qualifying.

It is no surprise that Messi's performances for La Albiceleste have improved as his stature has grown. The decision of Sabella to make Messi captain has cemented the bond between public and player. The suspicions of his over-commitment to Barcelona have subsided, each of his 10 qualifying goals acting as a nail in the coffins of reservation and misgiving. Now Argentina is united, and ready to take on the world in Brazil.

"I dream of being a world champion, of winning things with Argentina," was Messi's candid reply when asked about his commitment to his country, and there now seems little doubt of such a vow. If there are any shadows of Maradona still looming over Messi, he can now step out of the shade. The World Cup is the stage on which the good become great. Lionel Messi can prove he is the greatest of all.

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