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As a child at primary school in Argentina, I used to be troubled by the relish with which my history teacher would recount the humiliation inflicted on my British forebears in two failed attempts by detachments of His Majesty’s forces to seize Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807. The episodes barely made a footnote in the British chronicles of the Napoleonic wars but las invasiones inglesas, recalled by Argentines with as much pride as the Battle of Trafalgar is by the British, marked the first stirrings of the idea that Argentina might become a sovereign nation, plotting the course for independence from Spain.
Nearly 180 years had to pass before the country would savour another victory as glorious. The setting this time was the Azteca Stadium, in Mexico City; the event, a football World Cup quarter-final against England in 1986. The “English pirates” had more than made amends for the ignominy of their early 19th-century defeats by winning the Falklands war four years earlier. Here was Argentina’s chance to restore national honour. The English had had “la Thatcher” but now the Argentines had Diego Maradona. And Maradona, scoring possibly the two most famous goals in the World Cup’s history – one with his hand, the other after dribbling past practically half the England team – won, leading his team to the crown, fixing his place as an Argentine immortal and earning him the nickname “Dios”, which means God.
César Luis Menotti, 75, who coached Argentina to triumph in the 1978 World Cup, explained to me some years later in Buenos Aires why, in the eyes of his compatriots, his team’s achievement had paled next to that of the heroes of 1986. First, there had been no iconic leader on the field remotely as flamboyant as Maradona; second, the English had not even qualified for the competition; third, there had been no war to avenge. As for Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, which the referee failed to spot, Menotti recalled people saying, “Better, much better, that the goal was so unjust, so cruel, because it hurt those English sons of bitches more!”
Football matches between nations are sometimes spoken of as war by other means but nowhere does the comparison feel as valid as in Argentina. More collective pride and identity are invested more desperately in the national team than anywhere else. In a country that has failed spectacularly to live up to its never less than grandiose aspirations and is routinely described by a simultaneously self-regarding, self-loathing citizenry as “el culo del mundo” – the arsehole of the world – football is the one terrain where Argentines have been able to claim, without deluding themselves, that they are a global force.
Right now, in Lionel Messi, Argentina’s captain, they have the best player anyone has seen since Maradona. The dream is that in Brazil, whose economic success of recent years Argentines have regarded with grim envy, Messi will once more affirm the country’s footballing supremacy. One of the 10 richest nations on earth 100 years ago (far richer than Brazil), today Argentina finds itself sunk in all-too-familiar despond as inflation and crime soar under a populist government that is a laughing stock abroad and increasingly despaired of at home. Once again, the World Cup offers the prospect of national redemption.
The view from Europe is that Argentina’s chances of winning the trophy are good. On the precedent that no non-Latin American team has won the World Cup on Latin American soil, the wise money favours the two continental giants, Brazil and Argentina. How realistic are the chances of Messi’s team satisfying their compatriots’ longing to be celebrated once more as the world’s best?
It all depends on Messi himself. At his best, there is no one like him. Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal has been almost as prolific a scorer in recent years but lacks Messi’s ability to command a game, creating goals for others by drawing swarms of defenders to him then delivering passes of lethal precision to teammates in space.
The problem is that Messi has not been at his best for more than a year. A third of that time he has been out with an injury but since his return to his club team, Barcelona, in January he has looked a shadow of his great self. Barcelona, in turn, have suffered, performing more poorly this season than they have in six years. “Messi-dependency” is a term commonly used in Spain to describe his importance to one of the finest club teams ever seen; the dependency is far greater in an Argentine national team where supporting talent is in shorter supply.
Much speculation has centred on Messi’s loss of form. One theory is that he was on a go-slow in protest at the failure of the Barcelona directors to give him a wage increase until they finally succumbed, raising his salary from €13m to €20m in the last week of the season. Another explanation, cherished by Argentine fans, is that he has been deliberately preserving his strength, and shying away from possible injury, in preparation for the World Cup. More alarming is the judgment of Menotti, who, regarded as one of football’s more venerable gurus, said in April that he believed Messi was suffering “more from mental than physical fatigue” after 10 years competing and winning everything (except a World Cup) at the highest levels of the game. Messi is only 26 but sometimes it is the mileage accumulated, not the years lived, that erodes a player’s capacity to perform at his peak.
If, as Menotti suggests, the problem lies in Messi’s head, the answer to how he acquits himself in the World Cup may lie in the faith placed in him by his compatriots, on their ability to shake him out of his melancholia. Opinion about him has been divided at home and Messi – a sensitive man, easily hurt – knows it. In 2012, the year he scored an almost impossible 91 goals, he finished third in the Argentine vote for the country’s sportsman of the year.
Some Argentines are indeed placing their trust in “el Mesías”, the Messiah, believing that he will do as “el Dios” did in 1986 and drive an otherwise not mightily coherent assembly of players to the global crown. But the truth is that he has never inspired anything like the same degree of adulation in Argentina as Maradona. He has been accused by press and public of “not feeling the national colours” as he does the Barcelona shirt. That he left Argentina for Spain aged 13 is seen by some as a question mark over his patriotism, a prejudice that is reinforced by his diffident personal manner. Argentines like their heroes to be bombastic, in the Maradona and Evita Perón mould, but off the pitch Messi is, in truth, rather dull. More histrionics, more preening, more patriotic rhetoric is required of an Argentine idol than he is temperamentally equipped to deliver.
But all eyes everywhere will be on him in the World Cup and, if Argentina wins it, all will be forgiven – for it will be thanks to him. The fact is that while he has three classy associates in the Argentine forward line in Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, Real Madrid’s Ángel di María and Gonzalo Higuaín, who plays for Napoli, the rest of the team are not up to much. With the possible exception of Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder who is a teammate of Messi’s at Barcelona but whose light has also been fading lately, the defence looks weak and there is no one with any notable artistry to orchestrate play in the centre of the pitch. Someone who spoke recently to the present Argentine coach, Alejandro Sabella, in Madrid reported him confessing that he saw just the tiniest glimmer of hope of lifting the World Cup in Brazil.
That glimmer rests on Messi delivering the miracle Argentina’s depressed populace craves. The weight on his shoulders has never been greater. Diego Simeone, a former Argentina captain and now coach of Atlético Madrid, gave the measure of the task when I spoke to him just before the 2002 World Cup in Japan. “For an Argentine,” he said, “football is the one way we have to show the world that we are still alive.” As it turned out back then, Argentina not only failed to qualify for the second round of the competition, they endured the fate worse than death of losing to the English pirates. An early exit this time around would be regarded as a national catastrophe. Not winning the competition outright would be a calamity too. In such an event, the one and only thing that might salvage Messi’s reputation in the country where he was born would be that sweetest of sweet compensations, victory over the old enemy somewhere along the way.
John Carlin is the author of ‘White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the New Football’ (Bloomsbury).
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