Argentina’s most famous son isn’t even Argentinean. Well, not in the eyes of some the natives. ‘El Catalan,’ is what Lionel Messi is known as at home, giving us an idea of how he is thought in his own country. He is Argentine only on his birth certificate.
Indeed, Messi left home before Argentina could even get to know him, moving to Barcelona at the age of 13. While the rest of the world spent the next decade falling in love with him, Argentina admired Messi, but nothing more. He wasn’t one of them, like Diego Maradona.
However, Messi was, and still is, the world’s favourite. Even his rivals, like many of the 70,000 Real Madrid fans who applauded him off the pitch after a Clasico hat-trick at the Bernabeu, don’t have the moral stubbornness to hold a grudge.
After all, how could anyone dislike Messi? He is a shimmering, diamond of a player who has defined a generation. Uniquely Messi is both a playmaker in the mould of a traditional Argentinean number 10, and a play-finisher, like an archetypal Brazilian centre forward. Or at least, he was.
There’s no doubting Messi has been highly effective over the past two seasons or so, scoring an astonishing 96 goals in 89 games for club and country. But the player we all fell in love with was more than just effective.
While other players chase the ball, Messi moved in concert with it, pressing the play and stop buttons whenever he wanted. The Messi of old was irrepressible and unstoppable, playing the game with the exuberance of someone who did so only because he wanted to, not because he was paid to.
Some of the magic vanished
But something changed. Injuries took their toll on the Barca number 10, with every missed game seemingly claiming a chunk of his sporting soul. Even when Messi was at optimum fitness, it was clear some of the magic had vanished.
The spark that made him so special certainly hadn’t gone out, but until a few weeks ago it wasn’t shining so brightly.
Messi’s four goals in World Cup 2014 so far have almost single-handedly taken Argentina through to the last 16 of the tournament, with his first two against Bosnia and Iran respectively sure to make the highlights reel.
But nonetheless, what we saw was the shadow of Messi, even if that was still good enough to see off their group opponents. He drifted in and out of Argentina’s opening two games, only showing up to deliver his game-winning moments. Once again, effective, but not Messi.
Against Nigeria though, the Messi we used to know made an appearance. He only played 63 minutes, but in that time the Argentinean reminded us all of just how great he can be, and why he is the most universally adored figure in football.
The energy had returned to his legs, turning and driving at the opposition every time he picked up the ball. There was a clarity about his game, making the right decisions where before he perhaps wouldn’t have. This was the Messi we all hoped would make this World Cup his own.
Unlike in previous major tournaments, Messi is handling the expectation. The 27-year-old has thrived since being handed the national team captaincy under Alejandro Sabella.
Argentina haven’t won a trophy since 1993, when they lifted the Copa America. What’s more, they haven’t tasted World Cup glory in 28 years, in which time their rivals Brazil have twice. That is what Messi is burdened with.
“I was the one who gave it to him,” explained Javier Mascherano, Argentina’s previous skipper. “I told him I would no longer be captain. I told Messi he had to be captain because of everything he represented for us.”
So, given that turbulent relationship with his homeland, what does Messi actually represent to Argentina?
Is the real Messi back?
As a footballing culture, Argentina has taken the best of the European game and fused it with South American tenacity to create a style of play they call ‘La Nuestra.’
At times Argentina strum the ball around the pitch like the strings of a guitar, but they’re not averse to taking that guitar and smashing it over your head. And nobody embodies this collective personality better than Messi.
Having swept a free-kick into the back of the Nigerian net, Messi ran to the Argentinean fans at the front of the stand. There were men literally bowing down before him, worshipping the player dragging their team through the World Cup.
If his last appearance on a football pitch is anything to go by, the real Messi is back. The one even Argentina has now finally fallen in love with.