With a swing of his magical left leg, Lionel Messi broke yet another record on his way to helping Argentina reach the 2016 Copa America final in the United States.
Messi surpassed Gabriel Batistuta’s all-time national team goals record of 54 with a typically sublime 25-yard free-kick as his country decimated the hosts 4-0 in the tournament’s semi-final.
The world’s premier player is already the competition’s top assister despite missing the opening game, and is now also aiming to finish the Copa’s top scorer, being just one goal behind Chile’s Eduardo Vargas in what could turn out to be a straight shoot-out in the final for the Golden Boot, as well as the tournament’s title.
The final is a repeat of 2015’s edition which Chile won on penalties, with Vargas winning Golden Boot. The clash is also repeat of both teams’ first group game, which Argentina won 2-1 without their captain and talisman.
Since his return however, Messi has taken centre-stage in the States. His name has been chanted above everyone else’s, wherever and whenever Argentina have played – even, arguably, over the US team in the semi-final. Visibly his, and Barcelona’s, shirt has been the most on show in the crowds that came to watch.
Yet when it comes to Argentines, there’s a certain disconnect where Messi is concerned – and it’s the shadow of another legendary No.10 which still looms large and influences opinion. Whilst he’s long surpassed Maradona’s scoring record for country, he hasn’t led the national team to glory; and until he does, an unfair stigma remains.
As Jeff Himmelman wrote in his excellent piece for the nytimes.com prior to the 2014 World Cup, all of the following has been levelled at Argentina’s captain by his fellow countrymen over the years ‘from cabdrivers to coaches to professional commentators’:
Messi left Argentina too soon; he didn’t come up through the club ranks and play for a first-division side in Argentina, as other heroes like Maradona and Carlos Tévez have done; he hasn’t sung along with the national anthem before games; he has no passion, no personality; he doesn’t “feel the shirt” of the national team the way other players do.
Although born and raised in Rosario, Messi has never fully won over his natives or secured their adulation and devotion – unlike Maradona. Former professional boxer Pablo Rodríguez, said:
Maradona developed his talent in the mud,” referring to Villa Fiorito, the slum where Diego’s from. “I don’t identify with Messi, who was born surrounded by cotton.
Others simply sneer that they “don’t know who he is,” due to the fact that he left for Barcelona aged 13. Shy and introverted off the pitch, and phenomenally professional on it, Messi doesn’t display the characteristics of a street urchin-type player with whom many Argentines identify with and celebrate. Despite keeping his local accent it has been said that Messi’s linguistic twang is the only thing which links his nation to its most celebrated export. Many still feel him ‘not Argentine enough’. As Argentine soccer journalist, Martin Mazur, was quoted:
The greatest gift for Messi during these years is that he never lost the Argentine accent. You can’t imagine what it would have been for him if he hadn’t had it. They [the fans] probably would have killed him.
Despite these prevailing views Messi has grown to become the undisputed leader of his country, captaining Argentina to what will be a third final in a row. It’s a far cry from the lows of the Copa América in the summer of 2011, when Messi was openly jeered by his own fans after the team was eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
However there are still many hearts to win, and because of this Messi is expected to represent ‘the shirt’ without unconditional backing in his homeland. Writer and author Marcelo Sottile has expressed that the playmaker “has no fanbase” or homegrown support, so “there is less room for forgiveness,” were others have benefited.
Whilst some believe Messi has already dethroned Maradona as the records continue to tumble and numerous goals are created and scored, others feel he’ll never equal el pibe d’oro. After all, as Martín Caparrós put it:
Maradona had the enormous advantage that he didn’t have to be like anyone else, and Messi has to be like Maradona all the time.
Unless he soon delivers Argentina’s first title since 1993, he may never surpass Diego in those people’s thinking.
His is a legend so great, he has magical stories ranging back from the time when he was just a young boy. How could anyone really compete? To end, a reference to one such tale to show the disparity between the two great 10s:
As a boy, the future fantasista earned a cookie for each goal he scored, however, he began to routinely score four or five per game, leading his coach to strike a deal to make it harder for the short phenomenon: he would now only earn two cookies for every goal scored with his head against the older, taller children! The next game, the No.10 dribbled around the entire opposition and goalkeeper, then stopped on the goal line. He flicked the ball up and nodded it into the empty net, looked for his coach on the side, smiled and held up two fingers to signal his reward.
It’s the kind of impish genius you would expect to hear about a young Maradona, performing in Villa Fiorito; except, this story was about a young Lionel Messi, the Rosario resident, who has remained Argentine through and through.