The 27-year-old looks to be proving his World Cup credentials at last, after firing his country to the round of 16. Jeremy Lim explores the former Albiceleste enigma’s transformation in the last couple of years.
The last couple of years haven’t been great for Lionel Messi by his stratospheric standards. Blighted by all manner of injuries, his bearing on Barcelona’s first season without major silverware in six years was minimal.
Controversy followed closely in his footsteps off the pitch. He became mired in allegations of tax fraud and openly fell out with a Blaugrana board member. It seemed Messi was going through the seven-year itch with his beloved Catalans. His circumstances were just enough to cause a moment’s hesitation when broaching his ‘untouchable’ status at Camp Nou.
The ordeal was ongoing. His ‘greatest’ tag also came under its most serious assault yet from Cristiano Ronaldo. An extension in Ballon d’Or voting ultimately saw the Portuguese superstar snatch the prize many thought Messi had placed under a stranglehold. Several months later, his eternal rival would clinch a Champions League winner’s medal, and Real Madrid’s 10th trophy in the competition. By then, Messi was watching and recuperating from the sidelines at home in Argentina.
It would prove a humbling period for a man used to getting his own way on the eve of a World Cup. But what the tournament in Brazil, and representing his country, has really done is to provide a measure of solace and comfort. Ronaldo and Portugal are no longer around to haunt his every waking step, after both were eliminated without a whimper. And Messi has capitalised on the golden opportunity to make the Finals his own stage, beginning with singlehandedly propelling Argentina into the round of 16.
A planetary force
The Rosario native has been in ethereal form for Los Albiceleste - almost as if to illustrate what he was saving up for in the months he spent out. His strike against Bosnia and Herzegovina, a spectacular give-and-go before curling the ball in off the post, broke a drought of 623 minutes in the World Cup. The audacity of that blockbuster was bettered when Messi arrowed in an epoch-making goal versus Iran in stoppages. And a day after his 27th birthday, La Pulga powered in an extraterrestrial brace past Nigeria to ensure Argentina’s perfect record in the round. As the Africans’ boss Stephen Keshi confirmed: “There are good calibre players in their team, but Messi is from Jupiter.”
Indeed, Argentina’s story has so far revolved around their star and 10 others. Messi’s displays have not just left opponents trailing in his wake, they have also left his teammates panting to keep up. His winning contributions are so far out of this world, in fact, that they have patched over some glaring deficiencies in the side. Still, the Argentine public couldn’t be more delighted. 24 goals now in his last 23 appearances are further cementing his credentials as their talisman. To them, Messi is finally beginning to showcase the makings of the deity-like figure Diego Maradona used to embody.
It hasn’t been easy, living up to that lofty comparison. It still isn’t. From an early age Messi had laboured to produce under the expectations, contending with accusations that he was hoarding his best performances for Barcelona, his club. Fans used the fact he moved to Spain as a fledgling talent to farm conspiracy theories about where his true allegiances lay.
But where once being bequeathed the legendary No.10 shirt meant the unjoyous burden of pacifying the home support, the difference under Alejandro Sabella is stark. The shirt has started to grow onto him like a second skin. Under Sabella, playing for the Seleccion would become almost second nature; a near effortless task. The former Argentina assistant coach himself alluded to the need. “We need to make Messi feel comfortable,” he said following his appointment, adding afterwards: “We are looking for one or two players to build up a combination with him.”
Changing of the guard
A shambolic 2011 Copa America campaign made the squad cull Sabella would impose once he assumed charge easier to justify. Senior statesmen like Carlos Tevez, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and the Milito brothers - a hierarchy of players thought of as an inhibiting factor that prevented the diminutive forward from expressing himself fully - were handed their tickets to international endstation for Argentina.
Instead, the trainer occupied the spaces left behind with the cohort Messi had shared the 2005 Under-20 World Cup and 2008 Olympic triumphs with. Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria, Fernando Gago, Ezequiel Garay and Pablo Zabaleta were made permanent fixtures. Their skill and potential stood them out. More importantly, they saw eye-to-eye with Messi’s authority as both their new captain and factory of ideas on the pitch.
In turn, Messi responded spectacularly to Sabella’s trust to field him with an increased role, becoming the first player since Gabriel Batistuta to register 12 goals for the national team over the course of a single year in 2012. The striker next inspired them to first-place glory in the South American qualifying matches, himself coming in runner up to Luis Suarez in the individual scoring charts.
In fact, such has his influence skyrocketed that pockets of opinion have paradoxically shifted against him for wielding too much power.
‘The best player in the world’
Some quarters vilified the nation's brightest after he replied that he preferred the 4-3-3 Sabella had employed during the latter 45 minutes against Bosnia and Herzegovina at a press conference. Messi’s remaining detractors seized on the chance to paint his remarks as criticism of the coach’s decision to line up in a 5-3-2 in the first period. They asked whether Argentina was beginning to resemble that of the Little Dictator’s - a tag unaffectionately coined to refer to a player perceived as a closet autocrat - more than the coach’s.
The response from Argentina’s camp was unanimous. They rubbished any notion of an overbearing Messi. “I wasn't annoyed at all by Leo's quotes,” Sabella said unequivocally. “I was the one who designated Messi for the press conference. He was very respectful.” Preceding captain Javier Mascherano insists he’s only ever defended the collective: “I know Leo well: Messi would never pick or sideline any player. The public have to realise that Leo knows a thing or two about football, that’s why he’s the best player in the world.”
All of the team knows that their continued protection of the central figure could mean the final difference between victory and defeat this summer. The sheltered existence Messi now enjoys playing for his country is essential. As Mascherano confirms, his compatriot is presently in the perfect frame of mind. “He’s dying to pull off something incredible,” he beamed. “Because Messi is capable of pulling off something like that.”
There is the acute belief that with their star at his best, everything is within their reach. With the side still playing within itself, Sabella acknowledged there is an overdependence on Messi. But he too knows it is a winning dependance for Argentina: “With him, anything is possible. He is a decisive player.” Scintillating to this point and having left his Barcelona troubles behind, Messi is a man reborn at the World Cup.
Jeremy Lim is a freelance football writer with a particular interest in the Spanish, Italian and South American game. He writes for several online outlets, and can occasionally be heard on Red Card Sports Radio.