Lionel Messi is one of the greatest sportsmen to come out of Argentina, but most of his career has been dedicated to Spanish league, FC Barcelona, making him more appreciated abroad than at home. Argentina’s 2021 American Cup win saw him also win over Argentine fans.
Now a World Cup win for Argentina is the one award that would see him reach ‘God’ status in Argentina, like Diego Maradona preceding him.
An Illustrious Career
Fast and versatile, Messi’s tremendous career stats include 743 goals and 310 assists in 920 matches, but only 71 goals and 42 assists for his rarer appearances with the Argentine national team.
Among Messi’s many awards are the Ballon d’Or, which he won six times in his career: in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, 2015 and 2016, making the shortlist many times more.
The few times he has been passed over for an award, one gets the feeling that the humble, self-effacing Messi is just as happy to pass the baton.
Even the in the first of the two consecutive years when Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo won the award Messi’s opponents, such as Atlético Madrid’s, Arda Turan, preemptively named Messi as the most deserving player.
When Argentina crashed out in the 2010 World Cup, ‘The Flea,’ as Messi is affectionately known, was just so good that he managed to buck the trend of awarding a player from the winning team.
Today Messi serves as the captain of Barca, and has his eye on the 2022 World Cup, perhaps his last chance to secure a win for Argentina, the one accomplishment that has eluded him in four previous occasions.
Early Success on the Soccer Field
Football fans, regardless of club or national affiliation, are often stunned by the things Messi is able to do with the ball at his feet.
When watching him embark on one of his jinking, wriggling attacking forays, reactions can range from open-mouthed silence to incredulous laughter. Perhaps the most amazing thing about him, though, is the early trajectory of his career and the records he has broken along the way.
A star from childhood, by 19 he was already a clear star in the European leagues. At 22, he won both the Golden Ball and the FIFA World Player of the Year awards, by the largest margin in both awards’ histories.
By 24 he was Barcelona’s all time highest scorer; by 25 he was the first player to top 200 goals in La Liga, the Spanish Football League; and by the age of 26 he secured 300 goals for Barcelona.
When the pint-sized maestro retires he will likely be regarded as the greatest footballer the game has ever seen, surpassing mythical players like countryman Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pelé and edging out Cristiano Ronaldo, the other megastar of the generation.
Lionel Messi became part of the pantheon early in his career.
“Messi is out of this planet, I would say he is so far ahead of the rest of the players playing right now and I would say historically as well. There are not words to describe him,” said 1978 World Cup player, Ossie Ardiles on BBC Radio 5 live in 2011.
Little Leo Messi
A look at his list of achievements at such a young age helps to explain the sense of awe that surrounds the pint-sized champion.
Aside from a list of individual honors about as long as Messi is short, he has won titles with the Argentina national team at junior level and, most notably with his club side Barcelona.
Apart from representing Argentina at two senior World Cups, Messi has also won an Under-20 World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in national team colors. With Barcelona he has already notched up four league titles, two European Champions League titles, one Spanish cup and the FIFA World Club Cup, as well as many more minor cup titles.
“His speed is astonishing, ” said Argentina teammate, Carlos Tevez. “It’s amazing how he can go 1 to 100 in just one second. I’m constantly around great players like Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Wayne] Rooney, But this guy is just a step up above every other great footballer out there at the moment, Not only is he quick, determined, and extremely intelligent on the ball, but his movement off the ball is just as fantastic – ‘unbelievable’ to sum it up in a word.”
Messi’s career could have been over before it even began because his small stature once meant that no big clubs in Argentina were willing to sign him up. These days, Messi’s diminutive stature is often seen as an advantage on the field. His low center of gravity is pinpointed as one of the reasons he is able to stop on a dime and change direction instantly, sending less agile defenders reeling clumsily past like novice ice skaters.
Lionel Messi was born in Rosario, Santa Fe on 24 June, 1987 to a lower-middle class family of four children. Like most Argentine boys, he started playing soccer soon after he learned to walk, joining the local team Grandoli at four.
At the age of eight, he was recruited into Rosario club Newell’s Old Boy’s youth teams, where his considerable skills drew the attention of several big clubs.
The tiny attacking midfielder suffered from a growth hormone deficiency though, and Argentine teams like River Plate could not afford to pay for his treatment. Fortunately, Barcelona scouts had also spotted the talented youngster, and offered the 13-year-old Lio a trial in Spain.
Barcelona’s coaching staff were impressed with what they saw, and the club offered to pay the medical bills for Messi’s family if they were willing to uproot to Catalonia. They accepted the deal and Barcelona have enjoyed the player’s loyalty ever since.
Unstoppable: Messi’s Debut
Messi debuted in the Barcelona first team in 2003 at the remarkable age of 16-and-a-half in a friendly match, making him the youngest ever Barcelona player at the time.
His competitive debut came less than a year later when he established himself as a club superstar by scoring three goals against arch rivals Real Madrid in the 2006-07 season. After overcoming early-career injury, Messi soared to success. His Barcelona team is regarded by many as the greatest team in history, and Messi is the jewel in the crown.
The year 2010, at club level at least, was statistically his best yet. He scored an astonishing 42 goals, made 15 assists and completed 166 dribbles in the Spanish league, putting him at the top of the pile in all categories.
“He made the impossible possible. He has something exceptional. He is unstoppable. He is the best player in the world by some distance. He’s (like) a PlayStation player,” said Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger after Messi scored four goals against his team.
Messi and Argentina’s National Team
Internationally, accolades for Messi have been flooding in for years but strangely, despite his talent, good-looks and affable manner, the Argentine public has taken longer to warm to him.
The erection of the statue came at a timely moment to demonstrate some Argentine affection for the star, who is sometimes derided in his home country. After missing a penalty in a shootout at the 2016 Centennial Cup America causing a loss to arch rival Chile, Messi announced he would retire from the Argentine team. The move caused fans to panic and a Twitter storm with the #<em>notevayasleo</em> (Don’t go Messi) hashtag going viral. The city of Buenos Aires also made the same request on electronic message boards in transport hubs throughout the city. Even President Macri called Messi to urge him not to quit the team. He is also considering not renewing his contract with FC Barcelona in 2018. Additionally, Messi was also found guilty of tax fraud in a Spanish court this month and received a 21 month suspended sentence and fines.
The statue adds to the Costanera Sur’s collection of Argentine sport greats along the promenade, including Guillermo Vilas, Emanuel Ginóbili, Gabriela Sabatini, Luciana Aymar, Roberto de Vicenzo, Hugo Porta, José Meolan, Pascual Pérez and Juan Manuel Fangio.
A common gripe among media commentators and Argentina fans was that Messi never performed as well for the national team as he did for his club side. The theory went that he moved overseas at such a young age that he felt more Catalan than Argentine and therefore gave more to Barcelona.
Messi, shy and retiring off the field, was said to lack the spark and leadership qualities of ‘El Diego.’
This attitude may have a lot to do with the fact that Messi never played senior football in Argentina. Most Argentine players who go on to play for big teams in Europe earn themselves a rabid fan base back home by spending a year or two with Boca, River or one of the other big teams in local football.
Less talented players like Martin Palermo or Ariel Ortega, who failed to make an impression in Europe’s powerful leagues are in some ways higher profile in Argentina than Messi because they spent years playing in the national league, and are therefore highly visible to local audiences.
Barcelona Team Loyalties
It would be easy to understand why Messi would feel more loyalty to Barcelona, as local teams such as River Plate passed over the opportunity to sponsor him when he was just a promising youngster who needed expensive medical treatment. Since then he has broken many records: over 750 total senior career goals for Barcelona and his country, and with Barca he has scored the most goals ever for a single club.
Maradona’s Natural Successor
But through the years Messi has gradually won over Argentine fans as well, simply because he keeps performing at a phenomenal level.
Comments from Maradona himself anointing Messi as his successor when coaching the 2010 World Cup helped to convince the general populace.
Although Messi was unable to score for Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, he was instrumental in almost all of the team’s tournament goals, and was named by FIFA as one of the 10 best players of the tournament. But the seemingly shell-shocked team with Maradona at the helm was crushed by Germany 4-0.
In the 2014 FiFA World Cup, Messi was as close as he has been yet to World Cup victory.
Argentina got to the semi-finals for the first time since 1990, thanks to Messi’s goals and assists in every game until the knockout round. It would have been a dream to win the World Cup in Brazil, in front of hopeful Argentine fans who had traveled to the country in droves for the games.
But again, Germany’s strong defensive tactics meant Messi had little chance to score. Germany won 1-0 in extra time. Nevertheless, a disappointed Messi again won the Golden Ball as best player in the tournament.
The final game, against a well-oiled and organized German team, was dubbed ‘Messi vs Germany’ and ‘the world’s best player against the world’s best team.’
The following year Messi scored only one goal in six games of the Copa America. The team’s final loss to Chile meant Messi once again drew ire from Argentine fans who said he didn’t play with the same vigor for Argentina’s national team. He turned down the award for most valuable player of the tournament and reconsidered his loyalty to the Argentina team.
Since most Argentines under 30 years of age won’t remember first-hand Diego Maradona’s heroics at the 1986 World Cup, and are perhaps even tiring of hearing older generations eulogize the man, Messi has ascended to the next generation idol.
Argentina only qualified for the 2018 World Cup thanks to the efforts of Messi who scored three goals against Ecuador in the CONMEBOL tournament that qualified the Argentine to compete for the 12th consecutive time.
Although recovering from an injury and now a senior player at 30, he once again found himself hampered with the burden of carrying a weak team in the in 2018 World Cup. With a 4-3 defeat to eventual winners, France, Argentina’s fans once again soured on him.
Messi’s Looming Retirement
The only thing missing from Lionel Messi’s trophy cabinet is a World Cup. As a dual Argentine-Spanish citizen he could have competed in the World Cups for either national team. He chose to play for his homeland.
He became the first player in history to score in a World Cup as a teenager, and a player in his 20s and in his 30s. It remains to be seen if he will compete in the next World Cup now that he is getting to the age where it would be difficult to carry a team alone.
In 2020, unhappy with the team’s management, Messi also let it be known he wanted to part ways with Barcelona and threatened to leave. He reversed his decision when it became apparent he would have to get the courts involved to get out of his contract.
Even if he decides not to renew at the end of the 2021 season, it was reported by El Mundo that Barca will have to pay €39m to their club captain and star player.
Last World Cup Shot?
As for Qatar 2022, Messi says he hopes to play, but he will be 35 years old.
In a 2019 interview on Fox Sports he said,
“I don’t know if I will make it to Qatar. We were close to winning it before, and it didn’t happen. He (God) will decide what he has in store… A lot of things can happen in the meantime, I hope I don’t have any serious injuries and will feel well physically.
“I want to finish my career having won something with the Argentine national team, or if not having tried as many times as possible. I do not want to be left with the feeling that it did not happen and I let opportunities pass by.”
Messi also expressed his reluctance to retire, after spending his whole life in a routine of training and matches.
“Being at home and not knowing what to do is hard.” he said.
Messi’s Sporting Legacy
A miraculous 2022 World Cup win would seal Lionel Messi’s fate as the best footballer the world has ever seen.
Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s likely that a lot of grandchildren in 50 years time will get bored to tears listening to stories of Lionel Messi, he who mesmerized the masses.
Even the man who was most in love with the cult of Maradona, Diego Maradona himself, crowned Messi as his successor way back in 2010 when Maradona was coaching the Argentine team in the World Cup :
“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius and he can become an even better player.”
—by Dan Colasimone