My Lord of Winchester, you are a little,
By your good favour, too sharp; men so noble,
However faulty, yet should find respect
For what they have been: ’tis a cruelty
To load a falling man.
Cromwell, Henry VIII
Football has become an unforgiving populace. The rise of tactics has made it so that players can only shed their influence in the structure of the team, but the forces of marketing have brought them so much exposure that they are their own brand name. The presence of the media has exploded so that no action they take goes unnoticed, while the clubs keep them under equal surveillance specifically to keep them from marring the reputation of the organization. The transfer fees and wages con players with a false sense of esteem, when in reality they have merely been transformed into commodities.
For so long I felt that these changes were only superficial attachments on the game, that the essence of football remained too resilient, too indelible. The ties which bind the game seem invulnerable. For whether you support the giants or the minnows, you are still a supporter. That sense of loyalty is present at each level: from fan to player, from player to manager, from fan to fan, from father to son, from generation to generation. Ultimately from those bonds the value of football becomes apparent. Football becomes a way to express feelings and ideas which are difficult to express in other ways.
But even that truth appears to be corruptible, or at least forgotten. After the World Cup, Wayne Rooney was ostracized for his wry response “Nice to see your own fans booing you”, when the abuse he received was likely much worse, and of course recently, the entire world was witness to the jeers and thoughtlessness that Lionel Messi received after a helpless 0-0 draw. The apprehension and expectation of the fans is understandable given the team’s current form, but many of the comments were indefensible: “Pulga de mierda” and “Messi no es Argentino”.
With Argentina hosting the tournament, the Copa was meant to be a homecoming for the Barça player, but as often is the case the reunion has made both parties feel the distance between each other. Questions have been raised as to whether Messi is truly an Argentine player, or one who has been through the Catalan doctrine. At first it is difficult to grasp that an abstract notion like a player’s style can be decidedly “South American” or “European”, but the belief is strong in the eyes of the Argentine public. A commentator at the recent match best captured it, saying, “Con la 10, el mejor del mundo, Lionel Messi. Y con la 11, el jugador del pueblo, Carlos Tevez.” While Messi is the best player in the world, Tevez is the player of the people. Argentines are fanatical for the “fighting spirit” that Tevez regularly displays even though his hunger for the ball can spoil potentially favorable opportunities, while Messi’s calmed approach is taken as a lack of passion.
Of course, Messi’s brilliance has come from mixing his native style with the collective approach instilled in the Barça system, but it still only makes sense on the pitch. While at Barça the team’s play is tailored through Messi, for Argentina achieving the same system has proved all but impossible. At Barça, Guardiola pampers the little maestro, while in the national team the fans are insatiable. They hound him over his passion and identity, rather than buoying him with their support. They expect each player in the national team to display the same brash style which won them the ’86 Cup headlined by Bilardo and Maradona, but they never take into account the nature of the player himself. This approach has produced many false saviors, ‘the new Maradonas’, who have been touted only to be promptly crucified by the fans.
While Messi genuinely appears to be the most likely candidate to bring Argentines the glory they crave, he does not seem to be the candidate they desire. He is soft-spoken, but eloquent. His play is lethal to defences, but it belies a gentleness. Those closest to him will testify of the reserved nature which anchors his footballing persona. His grandmother remembers when Messi first made contact with the ball at the tender age of four: “He came in. His first touch astonished me. He dribbled all the time, I called out ‘Kick it, kick it!’ He was too nice.” His school teachers recall a quiet boy, obsessed more with football than studies, who “once had his girlfriends fill in a blank exam paper.” His doctor speaks of reassuring Messi upon the discovery of his growth hormone deficiency. “You will be taller than Maradona”, he said. “I do not know who will be the best, but you will be taller than Maradona.”
But the fears would not leave Messi, and they led him and his family to accept the offer from Barcelona. The matter was not merely about saving his future career; it was about saving his life. “I needed medical treatment and it couldn’t wait,” recalls Messi. “I was 1.32 metres tall and eleven years old. It wasn’t an issue of vanity.” Still his shyness and homesickness nearly led him to decline the move, until the family decided to divide for the greater benefit. His father Jorge and elder brother Rodrigo accompanied him, and for the first months it was rumored that he would not utter a single word outside their presence. But quickly, his drive and ability allowed him to rise through the Barça ranks, and soon he was called into the U-20 Argentina team for the 2005 tournament. Still, his reputation was much stronger in Barcelona where he regularly displayed unbelievable performances in the reserve teams, and Argentina did not even play him in the first match. But after delivering the performance of the tournament, he was being toasted from all corners of the world.
Barcelona struck a new lucrative contract with him, but Messi was not changed by his new fame. He continued to frequent his nephews’ house, flitting the hours on the Playstation, and it was frequently joked at the beginning of Guardiola’s tenure that Messi never even knew the names of the teams he faced unless it was renowned club. Other tales of his simple nature were exchanged, and when a reporter informed Guardiola that the only book Messi had ever read was Maradona’s autobiography, that too having failed to finish, Guardiola laughed and cast the story aside saying, “Who cares if he doesn’t like reading? Let everyone else read and let him play football the way he does.”
This was the philosophy that Guardiola saw to fruition. He brought swift exits to Deco and Ronaldinho, giving more opportunities to Messi, while also adding the likes of Dani Alves to aid Messi’s natural tendencies to cut inwards. Guardiola placed a greater responsibility on Messi to be the playmaker and goalscorer in the final third, but he aided him in every step along the way. Fellow Barça players also remained protective of the young prodigy, with veterans like Xavi and Puyol speaking on his behalf when questions came. They understood that for even as brilliant as Messi was, he was still a very young player and a boy at heart.
Of course having turned 24, it is now natural for him to look after himself rather than have others do so. He must be the one to respond to critics, but he cannot be expected to change his nature. If in Argentina they want him to play as he does for Barcelona, they must also treat him with the same respect and care that he receives in Barcelona. The question of Messi’s identity will remain open, perhaps well after the end of his career; but for now it appears that in Barcelona Messi has family, while in Argentina he has ‘fans’.