Messi in Red: A History of Imagined Glory

Adidas Spain Argentina

Sometime in 2003, Barcelona U-16 coach Alex Garcia tells one Gines Melendez about a prodigiously gifted Argentinean boy playing for his side named Lionel Messi [1]. As Technical Director and Coordinator of National Youth Teams Melendez would go on to spark a transformation of Spanish youth development that would yield a World Cup and two consecutive European championships, but at the time he was serving as selector for the Spanish U-16 side. Garcia informs Melendez that Messi has yet to be called up by Argentina and might be open to representing Spain. At least see the boy play, Garcia counsels. Melendez takes Garcia’s advice and is blown away.

Shortly thereafter Melendez approaches both Messi and his father to offer him a place on the Spanish U-16 squad. Messi’s response is curt but polite. “No thank you. We will wait for Argentina.” Melendez tells him that if Argentina doesn’t come calling, to remember the offer.

At roughly the same time Marcelo Bielsa and his assistant Claudio Vivas are touring Europe to check in with Argentina’s European-based players to discuss their plans for the future, as Bielsa has just renewed his contract with the Argentinean Football Association (AFA) to continue as head coach. Vivas, a native of Messi’s hometown of Rosario, is aware of the young Argentine in Barcelona’s youth ranks and asks Barca and Argentina goalkeeper Roberto Bonano about his progress. Bonano tells Vivas in no uncertain terms that Messi is a wunderkid. He hears the same thing a few days later when an overzealous Argentine agent named Jorge approaches him to warn him that Spain had been craftily working behind the scenes to get him to commit to La Roja. Vivas is dubious, so he asks to see video evidence. Jorge is able to produce a twelve-minute highlight tape on the spot and rush-delivers a video of a further five games within hours.

What happens next is unexpected. While watching the tapes, Vivas recognizes Messi. His friend and colleague at Newell’s Old Boys Gabriel Digerolamo had coached him when he was turning heads in Argentina as a young waif in the late 1990s. Giddy with excitement and panicked at the idea of Spain poaching his fellow Rosarino, he wastes little time phoning Argentine U-17 coach Hugo Tocalli to tell him to expedite Messi’s call-up for Argentina.

Tocalli is unnerved by Vivas’s eagerness, though, which he mistakenly interprets as self-interest, but promises to watch the videos to placate his colleague. But they begin to collect dust as Tocalli is fixated on the U-17 World Championship to take place in Finland in August. In the meantime, Barcelona’s Football Director Charlie Rexach reaches out to the Spanish Federation to further advocate for Messi. Vivas becomes so perturbed by Tocalli’s inaction that he mentions it to Bielsa.

Finally, the message filters down to Tocalli who duly complies and watches the tapes. He’s sufficiently impressed and confers with AFA President Julio Grondona who recommends they contact the Messis immediately to get him to commit to the Albiceleste. A few months later Argentina invite Messi to attend a training camp in June 2004, which he cannot attend due to his involvement in the Copa Del Rey youth cup, but manage to arrange two friendly matches with Paraguay and Uruguay at the end of June and early July. Messi features in both matches, plays out of his skin, and brings to a close the brief and rather one-sided flirtation with the Spanish.

[1] This narrative is constructed from details provided in Guillem Balague’s biography Messi (2013).

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In the autobiography, “Messi, The Patriot,” Messi addresses Spain’s efforts to get him to switch allegiances.

I was asked informally if I wanted to play for Spain, but I always said that I wanted to play for my national team because I love Argentina and these are the only colors I want to wear.

There’s no reason to doubt Messi’s sincerity when he speaks of his love of his homeland and fervent desire to wear the white and sky blue, but as the above narrative reveals a few important coincidences played a role in his relatively early call-up for Argentina.

The most important being that Bielsa and Vivas still had jobs. If the AFA had parted ways with Bielsa after his disappointing stewardship during the 2002 World Cup Vivas wouldn’t have made that trip across the Atlantic to hear about Messi firsthand and consequently would not have badgered Tocalli about him at all. Moreover, Vivas wouldn’t been made aware of Messi’s exploits at this particularly important moment in his development. At sixteen, Messi was in a sweet spot in his growth as a player: old enough to be considered close to a sure thing, yet young enough to inspire some degree of patience from him and his family.

Argentina champion

The Messis patience, however, may have been tested in the summer of 2005 during the U-20 World Cup in Holland. Messi would go on to lead Argentina to victory in that tournament, but it looked possible that Tocalli’s stalling would jeopardize him being called up in time. Spain was also involved in the tournament and would have used the occasion to entice Messi to showcase his talents in a competitive international setting. Barcelona put great faith in him by securing his father employment and paying for his growth hormone deficiency treatments so it’s feasible that a combination of prolonged Spanish generosity and continued neglect from the AFA would have sufficiently dampened Messi’s patriotism for him to do what fellow Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano had done before him and play for Spain.

In purely footballing terms it is difficult to imagine a more perfect union. Messi’s entry into the international game came at precisely the same time that the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) would generate the most dominant era of supremacy in football history across age levels made possible by an extraordinary degree of tactical continuity and institutional stability. By the 2006 World Cup, craft had replaced graft as Spain benefited from a cluster of midfield and attacking talent that did not fit the stereotype of the typical dogged and determined Spanish footballer. Messi would have been both the ideal expression of and exception to the RFEF’s reforms. A player that both epitomized the dedication to meticulous pass-and-move football while injecting it with an unpredictable and distinctly South American zest. Spain, as a result,would have been a more emphatic, more vibrant outfit.

Instead of coming on to rapturous applause for Argentina in their second match in the 2006 World Cup against Serbia-Montenegro, Messi would have made his first truly noteworthy international debut for Spain in their first match against the Ukraine. A game, ironically, that Maradona co-commentated on for Spanish TV’s Channel Cuatro. And in an act of far-sighted courage or extraordinary betrayal, depending on your perspective, the 18-year-old son of Argentina would step out on the world stage wearing not white and sky blue but red.

2008: The X-Factor in a Spanish surprise

By 2008, an emboldened Spanish coach Luis Aragones had withstood the ire of large sections of Spanish supporters and media by dropping Raul and placing his faith in a clutch of talented midfielders and the attacking duo of David Villa and Fernando Torres. An impressive run of results leading up to Euro 2008 had convinced many that the terminally underachieving La Roja were slight favorites to lift the trophy. Messi would have made them firm favorites.

By the 2007-2008 season Messi’s body had filled out to the point that he no longer looked like a boy prodigy playing a man’s game but a mature, explosive footballer whose first impulse was to beat opponents off the dribble and bear down on goal. Schooled by the audacious Ronaldinho and cheeky Deco, at 21 Messi used a combination of speed and swagger to express a wholly modern interpretation of the wide attacker: a combination inside-out winger and wide number 10. To put it in perspective, this would be the last pre-Pep incarnation of Messi. His hyperactivity and inefficiencies yet to be ironed out by the Guardiola regime, but he was arguably more thrilling to behold.

As with Messi, so too with Spain. Aragones’s side may not have been as dominant as the 2010 and 2012 championship sides coached by Vicente del Bosque, but they played a more exciting brand of possession football that was utterly fresh in an era typified by powerful midfielders, defensive solidity, and counterattacking.

Barca playmakers

Spain would have likely started Euro 2008 with an attacking trio of Villa on the left, Torres through the middle, and Messi slightly more withdrawn on the right. David Silva would have been dropped to make room for the Argentine. Behind them, the side would have remained the same. A midfield three of Marcos Senna holding and Xavi and Andres Iniesta creating, with a backline from left to right of Joan Capdivila, Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena, and Sergio Ramos with Iker Casillas in goal. An injury to Villa in the first half of the semi-final with Russia convinced Aragones to play with Torres as the sole forward in final against Germany. As a result, Fabregas was added to the midfield, though Silva may have piped Cesc in the pecking order with Messi in the squad.

As dazzling as he would have been, Messi would have probably improved the 2008 squad least of all the Spanish champions. Unlike the 2010 and 2012 sides, Spain’s 2008 squad benefited from two brilliant forwards whose individual strengths complemented the collective dynamism of the team. Torres, then in the pomp of his prime, used his pace to stretch play while Villa provided guile and incisiveness in front of goal. Meanwhile, Senna’s ability to patrol the midfield as the sole destroyer gave Spain’s gaggle of diminutive creators license to feed one or both forwards early and often.

Messi or no Messi, this young Spanish squad (the third youngest in the tournament) had the firepower to overwhelm all comers. Moreover, as Rob Smyth points out, in 2008 Spain benefitted from a surprise element that meant teams weren’t “putting 10 men behind the ball.” Messi would have added more of a goal threat than Silva, but his inclusion would have compelled the opposition to play more defensively from the off.

That being said, Spain would have massively profited from his presence in the quarter-final against Italy. Even in their most freewheeling and boisterous era as champions, Spain’s class of 2008 could be guilty of over-gilding the lily: their delightful build-up play betrayed by a flaccid shot or extra pass. So they proved against a stingy Azzurri side that took them to penalties. Messi’s knack for playing clever one-twos in even the most congested areas before embarking on a ferocious dribble may well have laid waste to Italy’s plans to stifle and frustrate the Spanish before extra-time.

2010: Pep influenced.

Despite the replacement of the irascible Aragones with the avuncular Del Bosque, Spain continued their commitment to the patient passing and aggressive pressing that proved so successful in 2008. That said, a slight change in formation inspired by Del Bosque’s more cautious approach and key injuries set this Spain apart from the 2008 champions. Instead of trusting a single midfield destroyer to protect the defense, Del Bosque promoted both Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso to play holding roles with Xavi orchestrating play just in front of them. Because Torres’s form and fitness so drastically deteriorated leading up to the tournament, Villa played as the single designated forward in Spain’s strongest eleven. And what they lost in attacking thrust, they gained in control. While Spain averaged 54% possession and 455 passes per game in 2008, the 2010 side kept the ball 61% of the time with an average of 528 passes per game.

If such possession was nine tenths of the law, Villa proved to be the remaining tenth. The only free radical in a perfectly balanced organism, Villa’s hero ball dealt the killer blow while the rest of the squad anesthetized the opposition with unremitting passing. A series of narrow victories over game but ultimately beleaguered opposition culminated in a deserved but far from universally celebrated title. And though it’s true the 2010 champions cannot be accused of willfully playing boring football, the timid teams who faced them made certain they often seemed it.

Messi would have made Spain more exciting while also solving two of their offensive shortcomings: a lack of width and cutting edge in final third. The former was exposed in their first group game against Switzerland when Silva was made the scapegoat for a shock 1-0 loss. By the semi-final, Del Bosque had settled on starting Pedro on the right who improved Spain’s attack by providing more variation and directness. At his best Pedro is a perky, busy attacker who isn’t afraid to shoot or take on defenders but he was far from the typhoon that Messi had become by the summer of 2010.

number 10

Already a Champions League winner and fresh off of his first Ballon d’Or, Messi was approaching his physical peak. He also added a significant wrinkle to his game: a howitzer long-range shot, which made him just as dangerous outside the box as he was inside. Under Guardiola’s supervision he had come to exemplify the modern withdrawn forward, or ‘false 9’. Ostensibly the most advanced attacker in a 4-3-3, in practice he moved between the forward and midfield lines to receive the ball on the half-turn with runners bombing beyond him on either side. That said, if Zlatan Ibrahimovic was included in the team, he would generally start in his familiar position wide-right where he could scamper down the line or cut inside.

Messi is remembered for having an underwhelming World Cup, but re-watch his performances in South Africa and you see a fit, in-form player trapped in a bewildering system. Playing in a tactically outdated enganche role in a 4-3-1-2 formation, he was burdened with far too much creative responsibility. In the quarterfinal against Germany, he often received the ball in positions level with defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano and expected to initiate attacks by slaloming up field through a formidable Teutonic defensive block. It predictably and spectacularly failed, the Germans walking it 4-0.

In a Spanish system, Messi would have been stationed much further up the pitch, most likely on the right of a line of three in a relatively novel 4-2-1-3 formation with Villa central and Iniesta narrow and slightly withdrawn on the left. Behind them would remain the midfield trio of Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Xavi, with a backline from left to right of Joan Capdivila, Puyol, Gerard Pique, and Ramos with Iker Casillas in goal. The combination would have been a devastating approximation of the 2010-2011 Barcelona, with Messi sharing playmaking responsibilities with Andres Iniesta and

Xavi, while also partnering Villa as the primary goal threat.

Spain ultimately won the 2010 World Cup at a canter –always looking comfortable yet never quite battering their opponents, instead tiring them before killing them off with timely goals like a seasoned bullfighter. They never scored more than two goals in any single match and only once beat their opponents by more than a goal in South Africa. Such parsimony could try the patience of even the most tiki-taka enthusiastic football hipster. With Messi in the side, it’s difficult to imagine Spain not doing both, playing as both bull and bullfighter and in the process becoming the most exciting champions since the Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning side.

2012: A decisive alternative to tiki-takanaccio

Spain’s Euro 2012 team reflected the Guardiola passing revolution more so than any of the Spanish champions. They would start half their matches with six midfielders and no natural centre-forward, including in the final when they destroyed a sold Italian side 4-0. The opening goal in the final was a perfect illustration of Spain at their most refined. About 40 yards from goal, Iniesta slips the ball inside the left centre-back Giorgio Chiellini who is outpaced by Fabregas’s deep run to the byline where he chops the ball back towards the penalty spot for Silva to deftly head home. Three undersized playmakers, two passes, one headed goal. A triumph of coordinated movement, precision, and intelligence.

It is worth remembering that Spain’s development as a team of passing midfielders came about through necessity rather than by choice. Villa suffered an untimely leg break in late 2011, while Torres’s devolution from kinetic goal-scoring machine to the Spanish Emile Heskey was more or less complete. (Ironically, he would leave the tournament with the Golden Boot with three goals and one assist.) Not for a lack of trying, though, as Spain started with a centre-forward in three of their matches at Euro 2012, a sign that Del Bosque wasn’t entirely enamored with a striker-less system.

At the same time the Spanish coach was reluctant to drop Silva for a natural winger to recoup some verticality lost in attack without a forward. Ultimately, he reasoned that match control was the key to an unprecedented third consecutive championship, as he used his charges’ ability to keep the ball as a means to starve their opponents’ of opportunities. The boring tag was back as tiki-taka morphed into tiki-takanaccio as a quite deliberate defensive tactic.

Whether Del Bosque would have been quite so cautious with Messi in the squad is debatable. Liberated by the Argentine’s brilliance and lack of quality options at centre-forward he may have been tempted to replicate the Barcelona model with a midfield three of Busquets, Fabregas, and Xavi, and an attacking trident of Iniesta, Messi, and Pedro. And he may have been forgiven had he done so.

Number 10 Fabregas Alonso

Between 2010 and 2012, Messi had developed into a once-in-a-generation talent who drew more and more comparisons with the divine duopoly of Diego Maradona and Pele. In the 2010-11 season, he led Barcelona to a La Liga and Champions League double; their performances earning them praise as one of the greatest club sides ever. In the 2011-12 season he scored an absurd 73 goals in all club competitions. But laurels and stats don’t begin to do him justice at his peak.

As an all-action false 9, Messi retained the impish energy of his early career, full of feints, cutbacks, and diagonal bursts into space, complemented by terrier-like defensive pressing from the front. What set this Messi apart from the Messi of previous seasons, though, were his improved spatial awareness and passing intelligence. Where he would once look to carry on dribbling after he left a clutch of hapless defenders in his wake he now paused to look to slip in a teammate behind the defense. He was fast becoming the most decisive passer in the final third.

In truth, Messi would have probably inspired only slight tweaks to the first team. The Argentine would have slotted in as a false 9 with the ethereal Iniesta an automatic starter on the left. The question is whether Silva would have kept his place as a right-sided playmaker or whether Pedro or Jesus Navas would be included as a speedy wide option to compliment Messi’s tendency to drop deep – something Fabregas didn’t really do when stationed as the ostensible no. 9.

It’s easy to imagine the mild-mannered Madridista alternating his line-up between Silva or either Pedro or Navas based on the opposition, with Silva keeping his place in bigger matches. Behind the front three would remain the midfield trio of Xavi as the central midfield metronome, with Busquets and Xabi Alonso as the double pivot, with a backline from left to right of Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, Pique, and Alvaro Arbeloa, with Casillas in goal.

There is a case to be made that Del Bosque’s choice to field both Busquets and Xabi Alonso centrally would have made Messi more dangerous as a false 9 for Spain than he was by the end of the 2011-12 season for Barcelona. Barcelona’s first leg loss to Chelsea in the Champion’s League semi-final was indicative of Messi’s increasing tendency to move into positions level with or even in front of the opposition’s holding midfield line.

With Spain’s extra passer, he would have been less inclined to drop deep out of perceived necessity and more likely to vary his runs with the confidence that either Xavi, Iniesta, or Silva would reward him. And any team brave enough to press Spain, as Portugal did in the quarter-final, would have been ripped apart as a result. Indeed, what seems certain is that with Messi leading the line they wouldn’t have waited until the end of their run of three consecutive titles to perform the way they did against Italy in the final.

2014 and Beyond

No longer the bright young things of world football, Spain would go into the 2014 World Cup physically jaded and mentally hungover from their previous successes. A 5-1 mauling at the hands of the Dutch followed by an equally emphatic 2-0 loss to Chile led to a disastrous first round exit, as Brazil proved a tournament too far for the midfield brain trust of Xavi and Xabi Alonso and a tournament too soon for the likes of Koke. Spain’s blue-chip midfield line was facing an impending post-Xavi future and they lacked tournament-ready replacements.

To paper over the cracks it’s likely that Messi would have replaced Xavi as the central playmaker from the outset. Messi’s improvement as a pacesetting passer and midfield operator was a credit to his versatility, but it was also indicative of a mid-career dip in fitness that made him less explosive in the forward line. Despite providing enough moments of inspiration to take Argentina to the final, it is difficult to imagine how Messi would have improved a Spanish team racked by lethargy when he himself spent so much of the tournament shuffling about rather than running.

More significantly, by 2014 football had undergone a tactical evolution that favored sides that blended the made-in-Spain template of short passing and pressing with more power and verticality, a blueprint laid down by Bielsa and updated by young German coaches like Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. The national sides that benefited most from this shift were Chile and Germany, the former unlucky in defeat against the hosts in the second round and the latter worthy world champions. For all their gossamer-toed skillfulness, the sport had for at least a period become a speedier and more concussive enterprise than Spain could come to terms with, rendering it doubtful that they would have advanced beyond the first round even with him in the squad.

Argentina number 10

Euro 2016 may have been a different story, however. Spain also came into France a more refreshed outfit than they were in Brazil two years earlier. The keys to the midfield were passed from Xavi to the capable hands (or feet) of Iniesta, while Alvaro Morata emerged as a worthy first choice centre-forward. Moreover, they still had one of the best backlines in world football, at least on paper, and more variation in attack with Nolito reprising the wide striker role Villa flourished in.

They started the tournament well enough with a hard fought 1-0 over the Czech Republic and an impressive 3-0 stroll over Turkey. But the wheels came off in the second-half against Croatia where their one-goal advantage was overturned for a 2-1 loss, which meant they finished second in their group. Demoralized by the knowledge that they had entered the tougher side of the draw, they were outfought and outplayed by their nemesis Italy in the round of sixteen, losing 2-0 despite showing a modicum of spirit in the second-half.

Whether they would have been so psychologically frail with Messi is doubtful. Revitalized and ravenous after Cristiano Ronaldo claimed back-to-back World Player of the Year honors, he ditched his favorite pasta and meat diet for a more athlete-friendly one and dropped three and a half kilos in the 2014-15 season. Exhibiting the gaunt muscularity of a MMA featherweight, late-era Messi drifts about the pitch like a mako shark; the shaggy mischievousness of his game abandoned for cold efficiency in movement and execution. His finest performances in the last couple of seasons drawing comparisons with Di Stefano for their be-everywhere-do-everything dynamism.

Messi was astonishingly good for four games in the Copa America Centenario, scoring five and assisting four. Had he carried this form into Euro 2016 – a tournament defined more by storylines and strange results than systems – you can imagine a different story for Spain, who would have plausibly won their group and enjoyed an easier ride in the knockout rounds. If nothing else, Del Bosque’s charges would have been buoyed by the fact that Messi was in their ranks and would have approached any setback as a difficulty to overcome rather than a sign of sure demise.

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Though the possibility of Messi jilting Argentina for Spain was distantly possible it was in no way probable. Messi improved so rapidly in 2003-04 that he vaulted four youth levels at Barcelona culminating in a league debut for the first team in May 2004 in which he scored. In August 2003, the most popular and influential Argentine newspaper El Grafico had sufficient knowledge of him that they wrote a feature article on him in which he was compared to Maradona. Vivas or no Vivas, it would have been an act of epic negligence had the AFA not summoned Messi before the summer of 2005.

Yet the counterfactual remains a tantalizing thought experiment nonetheless. Not only because it’s amusing exercise of fantasy, but because of what it reveals about the historical precariousness of his legacy. The incomparable American sports essayist Brian Phillips tackled the subject of Messi’s legacy in a thought-provoking article as early as 2010. Phillips argues that football, perhaps more than, say, basketball, is a game in which results are defined more so by systems and teams rather than individual brilliance. It is played eleven-a-side among nations small and large with varying degrees of talent, infrastructure, and know-how, while a select few national teams are actually capable of winning the biggest prizes. So, to say Messi must win a World Cup to be considered a player of equal measure with Maradona and Pele is to implicitly acknowledge that Argentina is a nation capable of winning a World Cup.

Capable, though, is far from likely. It’s well beyond the scope of Phillip’s essay, but Argentine football had rapidly degenerated in quality and organization as Messi was maturing as a player. Indeed, while the Spanish national team was beginning to show incredible promise thanks to transformations at youth level at precisely the same time Messi came of age, the AFA was beginning to suffer from institutional rot and corruption that led to a series of spectacularly bizarre national team coaching appointments and an increasingly undervalued youth development system.

Number 10 playmaker

Moreover, the economic crisis in Argentina meant that clubs there were impelled to sell their best young talents earlier, which contributed to an overall drop of the quality of the Argentine Primera. It also created an incentive for clubs to develop attacking players because they yield the highest transfer fees to foreign bidders, which contributed to a comparative lack of world-class defenders and modern ball-playing midfielders.

As a result, Messi would spend his prime years huffing and puffing through international qualifications and tournaments, dragging a top-heavy Argentina to respectable but disappointing finishes in successive South American championships and World Cups where they were ultimately felled by more cohesive, balanced teams guided by a clear set of football principles. It is not remarked upon enough that Germany has eliminated Argentina in three consecutive World Cups and Chile in two Copa America.

Of course sporting history like social history has a funny way of making fools of us all, but had Messi opted to play for Spain he almost certainly would have claimed a World Cup and two European Championships rendering his place as the all-time greatest player in the popular discourse a near forgone conclusion. To be sure, there would have been a strong rhetorical current insisting that he took the easy way out by playing with his Barcelona comrades. That he cannot be considered the equal of Maradona who did the same with more limited resources. That Pele has three World Cups to his name. But one expects these arguments would be confined to South American circles, animated by a mix of betrayal and resentment.

I thought about all of this as I watched Messi stare blankly into the middle distance after Argentina had lost its second South American title in as many years. His face wearing the haunted expression of a death mask; in it etched a kind of helplessness and betrayed hope. I was saddened; so I sat down to write a narrative worthy of the player. An alternate history as a way to conjure catharsis from imagined glory.

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