I was just a kid when I first saw Lionel Messi play. Number 30 on the back of his shirt, fluffy hair. When he entered the pitch in his first-ever match with Barcelona, I remember thinking that he should wear a headband. There’s no way that hair doesn’t end up blocking his vision. Messi was just a kid, too. A seventeen-year-old kid with fluffy hair, a tucked shirt and a deadly left foot.
The kid from that day is now a grown man, worn out by the years of burden behind him. As a 26-year-old, he has won more than most players ever do, he has scored more than the vast majority of players ever will, and yet, he’s the most criticized player in the world.
I know you think I’m exaggerating. But when I look at Messi today, his frown, his focus, the inhumane responsibility he shoulders, I know I’m right.
The child-like spark and smirk haven’t always been on Messi’s face anymore. They’re somewhere beneath the weight of the expectations, the scars left by heavy defeats that have been put all down to him, beneath the enormous desire to, this time, bring his country the joy it has waited for the past 28 years.
Messi might have left Argentina at the age of 13, but he’s still very much Argentine. He knows how the Argentine people live football. He knows that in Argentina, there are no excuses. The only thing that matters is winning, and moreover, winning in an attractive way. He knows that playing in an attractive way alone, however, won’t get him anywhere. He knows that if Argentina crash out of the tournament, the collective frustration of the country will be aimed at him, and no one else. Him, the boy who left Argentina, the boy who grew up in Barcelona, the boy who, according to the narrative in Argentina, cares more about his club than his country.
He knows that the legend he is asked and required to build, the mythical God-figure that he is supposed to match, is beyond humanity. He knows that what they expect of him isn’t expected of anyone else in the World. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, not anyone.
But it doesn’t matter.
It didn’t matter in 2010, when Messi, the 22-year-old kid, youngster, failed to carry his country to World Cup glory. He was a failure then, an indifferent betrayer of his country. The fact that he was a 22-year-old boy in the eye of the storm, in the middle of a chaotic team, didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except for the fact that they didn’t win. He didn’t win.
Messi is not a boy anymore. He is a father, a captain. More so now than ever before, he is expected to drag his team through the heat and animosity that La Albiceleste faces in Brazil.
When Messi scored the winning goal in Argentina’s first World Cup match against Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was against “just Bosnia”. The goal was beautiful, a moment of inexplicable desire coming into an exhibition of the immense talent the man possesses. He hadn’t played a great match, neither had Argentina as a whole, and everyone knew there was room for improvement.
When Messi scored his side’s winning goal against Iran, it was again, “just Iran”. Again, the goal was a beauty, in a moment when many had already given up on an Argentina win. Surely, Diego Maradona, who reportedly left the stadium just minutes before Messi’s goal, had. It was a shot from an impossible position, with ten defenders between him and the goal. And he gave his side the three points with that goal.
Again, Argentina played badly. They crafted very few great scoring chances, even fewer of them were well finished, and Messi, too, was a shadow of himself against a side that allowed him no space, and with a team that on the very occasion couldn’t create him space.
It is, in fact, an interesting mirror image of the kid in South Africa four years ago: The kid that orchestrated everything in his side’s attack, the kid that ran all over the pitch, who was easily among the ten best players in the tournament, but who didn’t score. And because he didn’t score, he was a failure, and even the 4-0 loss to Germany was put down to him.
In Brazil, Messi hasn’t run all over the pitch. He has created 7 scoring chances overall, completed 14 dribbles (more than anyone) but most of the time he has spent on the pitch, one could say that he hasn’t done anything special. He’s had his moments, his sprints, his glimpses of heavenly brilliance, but that’s that. But he’s scored. He’s scored two winning goals, and salvaged Argentina six points from two matches that some could say they didn’t deserve to win.
And as far as winning is concerned, Messi knows that he will never win in the eyes of the critics. In 2010, he did everything but score, and was called a failure. Now, he hasn’t done an awful lot beside scoring, besides winning his side two matches, and he’s still criticized because “he doesn’t run”. The question is, what do people want, after all? Maybe they don’t even know.
But one thing is for sure, Messi knows exactly what he wants. Messi wants to lift the World Cup towards the Brazilian sky, conquer the one piece of eternity that he still lacks, and that’s the only win that he wants. Winning in the eyes of his critics has become impossible anyway.