First, the bad news: an injury could curtail or delay Lionel Messi’s international comeback scheduled for September 1 against Uruguay. Returning for Argentina against opponents from the other side of River Plate would have added spice to one of football’s fiercest and oldest rivalries but the fates may deign otherwise.
The good news is that Messi will be back and that statement has every bit of the assuredness Arnold Schwarzenegger mustered when he said something similar. If it doesn’t happen on early Friday (India time), his 114th game for Argentina could be on September 6 (September 7 in India) against Venezuela. Or maybe on October 6 against Peru.
“It would have been a sin for Argentinians to be deprived of seeing Messi play for the national team,” said teammate Javier Mascherano on Wednesday.
There was enough evidence of Messi’s retirement on June 26 being an impulsive decision, albeit one that showed how much pressure international football can still put on a maestro in the time its quality is at a low ebb. Indeed, for every 2014 World Cup, there will be previous editions of the quadrennial showpiece and Euros that were down to a bloated 24-team version offering occasional thrills. So, when new coach Edgardo Bauza reached out to Messi in Barcelona days after his appointment, a change of heart seemed imminent.
“I see that there are a lot of problems in Argentina football and I don’t want to create more,” ESPN quoted Messi as saying two days after that meeting.
Crisis at AFA
Even Messi saying football in Argentina is facing a lot of problems seems like an understatement. Their league is undergoing a transformation and is often played to empty stands. For the past three years, there has been a ban on travelling fans in a bid to curb violence. Yet, this year a leader of fans of a club was killed. One year after his death, bribery charges were levelled on Julio Grondona, president of the Argentina Football Association (AFA) for 35 years. During the 2014 World Cup, Grondona’s son, also a Fifa official, admitted to selling match tickets with his name on them.
That’s not all. After the Copa Centenario, coach Gerardo Martino quit and his resignation was attributed to disputes in the AFA, according to an AFP report. Martino had earlier also said AFA owed him six months’ salary. Players’ salaries in the league, which resumed over the August 27-28 weekend, have been irregular. Last June, Fifa formed a committee to administer AFA that has been in firefighting mode since Grondona’s death. An election to choose his replacement was tied at 38-38 when only 75 delegates had voted.
Even Messi had called the AFA a ‘disaster’ on social media though his reaction was to a delayed flight before the Copa Centenario final against Chile. With a real danger of missing the Olympics, Argentina exited in the first round in Rio.
Things aren’t really hunky dory across the border in Brazil and Uruguay. Going into the Argentina tie, Uruguay players have criticised the federation’s broadcasting and commercial deals, both involving former star Enzo Francescoli, saying it has left the country’s favourite sport shortchanged. The Uruguayan federation too is said to have a salary backlog of its coaching staff.
In such a situation, it is the performance of the national team that provides succour. Look no further than how Brazil reacted to their maiden Olympic triumph. The poster boys of these three countries are teammates at Barcelona. Friends, according to Neymar. “I think we are successful as a trio because of our friendship off the field,” Neymar was quoted as saying in the September issue of FourFourTwo. The trio of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar scored 131 goals in all competitions last season.
Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s disdain for statistics being what it is, sometimes number do tell the tale. Messi is Argentina’s most successful goalscorer, having notched up his 55th in the Copa Centenario. Like with Sachin Tendulkar’s numbers, this will take some beating. Two contemporaries who are closest are Sergio Aguero (34) and Gonzalo Higuain (31).
Sharp football brain
Just as important as his goal-scoring skills is Messi’s sharp football brain, one that Bauza can pick even if he doesn’t play. It was due to Messi’s insistence that Argentina changed formation in the 2014 World Cup after the opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina and it was because he changed position that Belgium lost their shape in the quarter-final. “Messi helped us breathe,” said then Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella after the game.
“For me, he is the number one in the world because he can decide a match on his own...,” said Mascherano, ahead of the World Cup semi-final against Holland.
After helping Argentina reach two finals in successive years, Messi started in the Copa Centenario against Venezuela, who set out a 4-5-1 formation to rein in Argentina’s skipper. Messi shifted wide right and from there found Higuain with an assist. He also got a goal, Argentina’s third, in the 4-1 win. In the final against Chile that everybody seems to remember only for a penalty-kick went into orbit, Messi, banking on his ability to accelerate, again shifted to the right. It led to two fouls on him that had Marcelo Diaz being sent off.
From the time he started as a wide player, Messi’s shown the ability to adapt to a number of attacking positions including being a False Nine that he so famously became under Pep Guardiola in 2009 in a ‘Clasico’. “Attack is more based on innate talent,” Guardiola had said in another context but it would be an apt description of the man who honed his craft at a cathedral where the ideas of Johan Cruyff still resonate. And he has a supercomputer of a football brain.
Former Barcelona defender Eric Abidal recalled how at training, Messi told keeper Jose Manual Pinto where he would aim his free-kicks and for the next 10 shots, managed to send the ball exactly where he said he would. Despite prior information, Pinto couldn’t save any.
Whether or not, he is captaincy material is debatable. Indeed, neither Neymar nor Suarez seem cut from that leadership cloth. “Neymar doesn’t have the profile of a leader. We have to let him enjoy himself instead of being captain,” former Brazil skipper Cafu has said. Maybe, you could say the same about Messi. Just like India did about Tendulkar.
Five Septembers ago, in the unlikely setting of the Salt Lake stadium, a partnership was forged that took Argentina agonisingly close to a World Cup title. Messi had been named long-term captain by Sabella beginning with that friendly against Venezuela. Here’s an opportunity for another partnership being built and strengthened on the road to Russia. The 2018 World Cup would be his last chance saloon because when Qatar comes along, Messi would be over 35. Even for his extraordinary abilities, winning a World Cup then might prove to be too much of a long shot.