Will Lionel Messi ever be loved in Argentina like Diego Maradona?

Messi Maradona

Lionel Messi. Arguably the greatest footballer to ever grace the pitch. To spectators across the world, his phenomenal skill and record goal-scoring feats for F.C. Barcelona have made him a revered figure, a blessing whose talent is one which can never be replicated. But in his native Argentina, the world’s greatest player is seen in a different light or, as it were, a shadow. That shadow is in the shape of the nation’s favourite footballing son, Diego Maradona, a genius whose impact transcended football and filtered through to everyday life, garnering the adulation of the masses. Many in Argentina, despite Messi’s achievements, have not taken to him in the same way they embraced Maradona. This perception will have undoubtedly amplified following Argentina’s defeat to Germany in the World Cup final, with Messi failing to make a great impact during the match. So why have the people not yet fully embraced the phenomenon that is Messi?

The reasons for this reluctance are varied and complex. Argentineans feel, firstly, that the superstar is not Argentinean enough. Argentines highlight that Messi left Argentina at a very young age (13 years old) to join Barcelona and has not yet played for an Argentinean club in his career. Meanwhile, Maradona began his career in his native land, staying for six years before leaving for Napoli aged 22. Messi, rather than being an Argentine, is more of a Catalan, with no real Argentine identity, taken from the nation much too soon. He doesn’t sing the national anthem – a tell-all sign to the people of Messi’s perceived lack of commitment to the nation. But his accent keeps people from saying that he is completely un-Argentinean, a sentiment summarised by Argentine journalist Martin Mazur who told the New York Times; “The greatest gift for Messi during these years is that he never lost the Argentine accent. You can’t imagine what it would have been (like) for him if he hadn’t had it. They probably would have killed him.”

Argentineans claim they cannot identify with Messi in the same way they could with Maradona, because of their respective socio-economic backgrounds. Maradona lived in poverty and “developed his talent in the mud” as it were, whilst Messi was from a lower-middle class background and was “born surrounded by cotton”. Maradona is truly of the people, unlike his more privileged successor. This sense of disillusionment is summed up by cab driver Dario Torrisi, telling the New York Times: “We’ve always liked how Messi plays, but we don’t know who he is.”

Argentina’s current number 10 has had to encounter accusations from ordinary Argentines that he shows little passion for the nation or personality and has failed to deliver for the national team, compared to Maradona. Argentineans have historically preferred their heroes to be bombastic in their actions and their national loyalty and compared to Maradona, who always wore his heart on his sleeve, Messi is rather dull, unable to captivate the nation in the way Maradona was able to. Maradona’s career encapsulated the romance, passion and controversy (drugs, health problems, etc.) of the man himself that the people evidently love, typified by his role in leading Argentina to glory in the 1986 World Cup.

Messi’s performances for Argentina are also brought into question. At international level, he has performed nowhere near the level he does for Barcelona; he’s scored 42 goals in 93 caps, a good haul for any other player but perceivably low considering his feats for Barcelona (he is the club’s all-time leading scorer with 357 goals in 430 games). This is despite the fact that Messi has more international goals than Maradona, but the scale of his success at club level has generated almost extreme levels of expectation from the people for him to deliver on the international stage. Clearly, the expectation is for Messi to dominate international football as much as he does club football.

The accusation that he has failed to deliver is perhaps a fair statement, given that he has generally failed to inspire his teammates to glory as did Maradona – at the 2010 World Cup, Messi was distinctly average. Single-handedly guiding your nation to World Cup glory is no mean feat, but Maradona defied all odds in 1986, immortalising himself across the country and world. Messi has proved unable to repeat Maradona’s achievement against Germany in 2014 and until he does, in spite of his achievements, this will be another barrier preventing his ascension to godly status amongst the Argentinean masses.

Whether Messi will be truly accepted in Argentina is a matter in which only time will tell. The people’s criticisms show a complex relationship with the world’s greatest player that will take time, and a World Cup triumph, to address.

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