Just days before two separate World Cups, two Albiceleste superstars, of similarly rare pedigree it must be said, made news for bending over in public and tossing out the contents of their respective stomachs. When this happened exactly twenty years ago, outside a suburban Napoli bar, the Argentine population raised a suspicious brow over Diego Maradona’s infamous coke-orgies-&-rock-and-roll lifestyle.
Shortly after, when he was banned from participating in USA ’94 for a positive PED test, the masses back home were livid. But livid like a mother is with an incorrigible child. They forgave him soon enough, ensuring that the pedestal he was placed upon remained untouched. El Diego was the country’s love-child, immaculately created like the son of God. For many, he was God himself.
Fast forward a couple of decades and a nauseous Lionel Messi, widely proven as Maradona’s reincarnation, dry-retched on a Beunos Aires football field during a warm-up game against Slovenia. Instantly, those eyebrows went up again. No, it had nothing to do with his lifestyle — unlike his predecessor, Messi’s image is squeakier than a toddler in Disneyland. It’s just that they openly wondered whether the wunderkind was making more excuses for not performing for Argentina again.
“Nerves,” said Alejandro Sabella, Argentina’s coach. “Pressure,” said Gerardo Martino, Messi’s coach at Barcelona. “Even doctors don’t know why,” said Messi himself.
All perfectly valid reasons, but it just didn’t and won’t do for the man on Argentina’s street. If Messi were to return empty-handed from Brazil, just as he did from South Africa and Germany, he won’t be forgiven. Not just because he hasn’t done what Maradona has for them, win Argentina its second and last World Cup in 1986, but because Messi (unlike Maradona) is considered an ‘outsider’ in the first place.
“Maradona may be a rogue, but he is very much our rogue,” says Sarba Derento, an Argentinian steward working in a commercial airline in Brazil. “Messi, on the other hand, became a saint after leaving our shores when he was a young boy.” But didn’t he too leave his country to find a better livelihood in another?
“That’s different,” Derento says. “My friends back in Rosario don’t question my nationality. But all of Rosario questions Messi’s. To us he’s Catalan.”
Born in Rosario, Messi left for Barcelona as a 13-year old to train at the highly specialised academy of La Masia. There, in the heart of the Catalan capital, he polished the tricks of his trade and became a legend. And his saintly status comes with 21 titles and a record four Ballon d’Ors, all for and with Barcelona. “But what has we won with Argentina?” Derento asks. “Nada.” Nothing.
Nada is a stretch, of course. In 2005, an 18-year old Messi scored six goals in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Holland to win Argentina the trophy and himself the Golden Ball. Who had done precisely that in 1979? No prizes for guessing the right answer. El Diego of course. The comparisons began right there in Amsterdam, nine years back. And ever since, Messi has struggled to break out of a most heavy shadow.
Maradona, as we all know, famously went on to singlehandedly (and singlehandedly here is correct for more reasons than one) deliver his country the cherished prize in Mexico ’86, with a singular left-footed run and a singular left-handed goal. He was 25. Messi, who turns 27 a day before Argentina’s final group game against Nigeria (they’ve got the easiest of draws, with Bosnia and Iran completing the group), however, has failed to see his international career ever take off. Sometimes, though, the fault wasn’t just his.
In the quarterfinals in Germany ’06, Jose Pekerman infamously benched his twinkle-footed star and Argentina crashed out in penalties. And it was Germany once again that puts Messi’s misery to an end in South Africa after he failed to score a single goal at the peak of his career. Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain, for instance, convincingly outclassed the side’s superhero, four goals (including a hat-trick) to zero.
“If he couldn’t do it at 23 and if he can’t do it at 27, he won’t be able to do it at 31,” says an editorial in Argentina’s English daily, Mundial. “Yes, it still means he’ll have a few more good years left with Barcelona, but how does that concern us.” On Friday, two days before Argentina’s opener against Bosnia, the paper ran a large picture of Messi on the front page, with the headline: “On the feet of Messi.”
Apt, because if those feet return with a Cup, Argentina will embrace him. But if they don’t, St. Messi will be crucified in his homeland.