The Messi-Argentina story can't be over yet

It appeared that, finally, the stars had aligned and that arguably the greatest footballer of them all would claim a cherished trophy for his Argentina, but one wayward kick changed the course of history forever. But surely there is another chapter to be written.


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The first time in New York inevitably makes an impression. The band Prefab Sprout put that ‘wow factor’ to words and music a few years ago in their song ‘Hey Manhattan’.

‘Strolling Fifth Avenue,’ go the lyrics – ‘just to think, Sinatra’s been here too!’  It is a hymn to the grandiosity of the 20th century, to a republican age that needed democratic celebrities - and so kings and queens are replaced by the likes of Frank Sinatra.

There was an earlier generation, in at the birth of the radio age – such as Charles Lindbergh, who probably became the most famous man in the world after completing the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, a feat that seemed impossibly bold, glamorous and futuristic, perfect for the early days of radio.

Wandering along Manhattan’s avenues, with the sky scrapers making you feel at the bottom of a man-made canyon, it is impossible not to dwell on how all of this must have looked from the bottom when Lindbergh was passing through a ticker tape parade.

More down to earth were the sports celebrities – maybe the first big one, arriving in New York at the start of the radio age, that star who changed the game that defined the USA at the time, was baseball’s Babe Ruth.  A loveable giant – surely Fred Flintstone was modelled on him – Ruth had an everyman character about him, a charisma that was at ease with his celebrity status.

With his bulky figure and insatiable appetite for life, he seemed perfect for an age that was preparing to enjoy the world’s initial, enthusiastic, innocent burst of mass consumerism. And then when the Great Depression struck, he was a symbol of hope that better times would return.

On 26 June, the same city played host to the outstanding figure in the modern global game, when Lionel Messi captained Argentina in the final of the Copa America against Chile.  I know that, technically, the stadium is across the water in New Jersey but this was a New York occasion - from the Argentina fans signing in Times Square on the eve of the game to top of the Empire State Building being decked out in the colours of the two national teams.

Come the conclusion of the game Messi looked as if he wanted to throw himself off the top of said building, after blazing his penalty high over the bar and handing the Chileans the initiative in a shootout that they went on to win 4-2.

Messi makes a stark contrast to Babe Ruth.  He is small, for example – but that low centre of gravity is an aid in football, a game of twists and turns played mostly on the floor.  Diego Maradona, too, was short and stocky – but he was full of the braggadocio of contemporary times, with its focus on individuals.  Messi has little of that.  He is quiet, usually undemonstrative.  Never a ranter and raver.

In one sense Messi is an appropriate symbol of the times.  He is a Maradona of the Playstation generation, perhaps more articulate with his thumbs than he is with his lips, the product of an era when technology can de-socialise, leaving everyone in their own little bubble of reality.  These are not times that produce an abundance of leaders, as football coaches all over the planet are inclined to lament.

And yet Messi has leadership status with the Argentina national team.  He has been the captain since 2011.  He is the reference point.  It is, inevitably, a technical leadership.  He is not the big, aggressive centre-back bellowing out instructions, encouragement and abuse to his team-mates.

Instead, game after game, he is the one who is supposed to do something special to unlock the opposing defence.  So when he slips below his own extraordinary standards – such as the penalty he missed in the final against Chile – it is a double failure.  He has let down his team-mates (and by extension his countrymen) as a player and as a leader.

It is really any wonder that people buckle under that kind of pressure – which in the case of this Argentina side was multiplied by all of those years waiting for a senior title, all of those near misses in the recent past?

No wonder Messi looked crushed at the end of the Copa.  Because the life of a celebrity of that magnitude is crushing, for all its financial rewards.  Basic freedoms of the right to come and go are denied.

The football pitch is the place where he can find freedom and self-expression, but his culpability in another final defeat surely made him feel as if all of those New York skyscrapers were falling in on him, that he was having a ticker tape parade, only that people were dropping bricks.

Messi, of course, is usually compared to his compatriot Maradona.  Hopefully in this case a comparison with Pele will prove more appropriate.

The great Brazilian wanted nothing more to do with World Cups and his national team after being brutally kicked and hacked out of the competition in 1966.  For the next two years he did not play for Brazil. However, in the end he could not resist it – he had to come back to have another crack at winning the World Cup, at ensuring that his legacy in the game would be complete. 

Imagine Pele’s career without the 1970 World Cup triumph - from this distance it would read as a story of greatness, yes, but also of promise not totally fulfilled.  Thankfully everything worked out for him in Mexico ’70.

It would be harsh indeed not to wish Messi a similar coda to his international career in Russia 2018 – and then Buenos Aires has enough tall buildings of its own to give him a proper ticker tape parade.

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6 min read
Published 3 July 2016 at 10:14am
By Tim Vickery