Messi is sad when he plays for Argentina. Or at least so proclaims todays Olé:
“The same day he scored a hat trick against Valencia and was heralded on the front page of all the newspapers in Spain (and many more around the world), near midnight when the goals were still being shown on every channel in the country, Oscar Ruggeri came out with a line he could have picked from Maradona’s pocket: Messi is sad when he plays for Argentina,” […] and the debate begins again: why in Barcelona, yes, and with Argentina, no? Is it solely a footballing question or is there some psychological impediment that prevents him from delivering in Diego’s team?”
Ay, the soul-searching, the San Andreas-like chip on the pueblo’s collective shoulder, along with the cultural obsession with psychoanalysis, it all makes for a foul soup. The banner reads “Only 87 days to go til the World Cup!” and the chattering classes (hello) are worried about the apparent “lack of happiness with which Messi puts on the Argentine jersey.” The eminent Doctor Jorge Rocco gives his beard a hearty yet anxious stroke today, pronouncing: “He doesn’t seem happy, nor is he made to feel welcome by the fans, nor is he well integrated into the group. It’s as if he weren’t really there.” The good doctor goes on to make a case for the inclusion – why not me? he cries – of a specialist to combat any “mental strife” in the World Cup party.
Those not living here would be rather surprised, I dare say, at the prevalence of the anti-Messi prejudice. Just like the sickening feeling you get when you come into the kitchen and turn off Joe “666” Duffy only to pick up the newspaper to be confronted with the likes of Sarah Carey and Micheál Martin’s two cents on The Incident in the Stade the Jerks, so that you begin to wish you’d never bloody well heard of the damn game, here the consensus of similar amount of the populace is that Messi is to blame for the failings of la Selección.
Earlier I mentioned the chip on the shoulder the Argentines have: they constantly speak of acá y allá, here and there, the ‘First’ World and the ‘Third’. However, it’s more than that. The current malaise started as a mild surprise, with headline puns on Leo/lío, which means a debacle or a fight in castellano, but since then it has become somewhat more sinister, more widespread, bin juice trickling down the wadded chest of society, across the creases of the flabby belly and down its weak legs til it becomes a kneejerk reaction, the kind of comment your aunt or the Brother spout mechanically.
“When I see Messi play, you know, I just don’t feel inspired,” the mother-in-law says to me the other day (thinking she has carte blanche ’cause he’s Argentinian – mistakenly so, Edith). “He doesn’t seem to enjoy himself – unlike the Brazilians.” To be honest I don’t remember too many smiley faces when Ireland were pummeling the bejaysus out of France.
Barca were poor in the first half so Messi didn’t see much of the ball. When he did get it he did his Messi thing, just as he tried to do in many matches with Argentina with his gambetas olímpicas. Isolated, not a part of the group, yes doctor, but when there’s no group what do you expect? In the second half he found space, he could play, and he scored a hat trick so fantastic its likes hadn’t been seen since one David Houdini hired his first rabbit.
Ángel Cappa, for one, un capo who, sadly, finds himself far from the bosom of Argieball these days, won’t accept the Messi-bashing: “Since Messi has been playing for the national team, I don’t think they’ve ever played the same formation twice, there’s no stability, no team, so he ends up lost.” It’s not entirely accurate either, though, as Messi was part of Basile’s squad where he played regularly enough in a front two with Aguero or Tevez, when the latter wasn’t suspended. His best moments have come in settled teams, though, where wingers were sacrificed for fine ball-players in midfield (Román, Cambiasso, Aimar, Maxi, Banega) and was granted a great deal of freedom, such as in the in the Olympics and the Copa América 2007, where he scored this goal:
Cappa goes on to say, however, that the pressure of being Messi weighs on him when the team goes AWOL. “It must be disconcerting. He’d love to play in an Argentine team where he has a role – instead of being the one everyone looks at to save the day.”
Maradona did, you whisper, tears in your eyes at the memories; Messi clearly doesn’t have el Diego’s balls, you say. For what started as a joyous comparison with Maradona has since become a twisted, nostalgic obsession. Now even the farcical manner of qualifying for the World Cup and the squabbling among the coaching staff are heralded as positive omens: sure this is what happened in ’86! And if these players can’t repeat that it’s because they’re all soft, they’ve forgotten what it means to wear the jersey, how it smells, it’s down to the fabric! If Alfonsín was still alive we could put him back in as President and go back to using Australes again!
Marcos López, from the Periódico de Cataluña, takes this apart when he points out that in Barcelona Guardiola has “indicated to the players that five minutes should never go by without Messi touching the ball as he has to be involved in the game – yet he does not ask Leo to resolve everything. In reality it’s Messi who depends on Barcelona and the structure of the team. The coach has created a world where Messi can be happy.” To give the lie once more to Baldwin/Martin/Streep fiasco, it’s not that bloody complicated! Playing the football might be if you’re not good enough, but from the manager’s point of view… Maradona said it himself last year: “I would have to be an idiot not to play Messi in the same position he plays in with Barcelona!” In fairness he tried it once or twice – but it was always coupled with loony decisions like Gago on the right wing and three mental patients at the back in front of a nervy keeper.
So he abandoned it, abandoned it in favour of the ultra-defensive, counter-attacking strategy he has used now in the last two games. Being cautious often has the advantage that it makes its adepts appear to have more nous than the common fan, who would just love to unleash the attackers, pro-Ev style. Bielsa, for one, gives the lie to this: if a chaotic reign leads to insane team selections and inspires nothing more than discord and nervousness in the players, that is no argument to effectively give up on football, to shun flair for mistrust, in an undoubtedly vain attempt to lose gracefully.
For the key aspect here surely is that despite everything that has happened, whether Cambiasso, Zanetti, Riquelme, Banega, etc. are there or not, whether the wound of the humiliation in La Paz is festering still, Messi or no Messi, Argentina’s World Cup story will probably end up the same this time. They will certainly do better than in Bielsa’s ill-fated campaign in 2002, and given their probable opponents in the second round, they’ll probably match Passarella and Pekerman’s achievements. So whether Messi takes to the field sniffing the fabric with a clown smile on his face and complete with a Maradona wig in genuine attempt to create Messico ’86, it probably won’t matter very much.
Time, just like every right-thinking person, laughs at blogs. But that won’t stop us giving the blade another spin.