Lionel Messi hungry to win a major title with Argentina as Copa America looms
ROSARIO, Argentina -- There are few (if any) Argentine cities that feel their sporting heritage as deeply as Rosario. A four-hour drive northwest of Buenos Aires, the working class, riverside town has played a huge role in the country's sporting scene, producing athletes ranging from field hockey legend Luciana Aymar to 1932 Olympic marathon gold medalist Juan Carlos Zabala. One name, however, towers over all of them, at least in the wider world's perception: Lionel Messi.
Messi's relationship with his homeland and his homeland's relationship with him have been sources of constant talk ever since it became apparent that he was destined to represent La Albiceleste. One thing is clear, from an objective look at his international career to date, and a read of previous articles: Messi's sense of "Argentina-ness" hasn't been dimmed by his time in Spain.
It's true that his Player of the Tournament award at the 2014 World Cup was widely ridiculed, given Argentina's defeat to Germany in the final, but if he wasn't the best player in Brazil, he was up there. Without Messi's interventions, Argentina wouldn't have made the knockout stage, let alone the final, and he was one of the only attacking players -- Angel Di Maria, injured for the semifinal and final, was the other -- to emerge with his reputation unscathed from what was, by most teams' standards, a wildly successful tournament.
A year later, Messi was arguably better supported by his teammates and again played a fine tournament, but he had to settle for a runner-up medal as Argentina lost in the Copa America final to hosts Chile.
Their first match in this year's tournament is a rematch of that final and, while it's less than clear whether every team will be taking the one-off centenary event seriously, Argentina evidently see a chance to end a trophy drought that dates back to the 1993 Copa America.
Make no mistake: They will be going all out for the win this summer and Messi will be a vital part of that.
"I SPENT 28 YEARS at Newell's. Soon it'll be five years that I've been working with Jorge (Messi's father) and always training the kids," Ernesto Vecchio says. The chance to talk to Vecchio is not one to be passed up; he, arguably more than anyone, has shaped Messi as a footballer because among those 28 years at Newell's, he spent three of them training Messi.
"My work, for all those years, was as much to do with helping the kids to mature as people as it was to help them become players," Vecchio says. "The person is always the first thing. That they learn to respect everyone around them, to take responsibility -- they have to grow up. I was always straight with them: It's a long road, there are a lot of obstacles along the way, but every coach is going to teach them something.
"After going through that, they need a level head, they need responsibility and they need to treat [football] like a job. But they shouldn't leave school because no one can ever know if this or that player is going to make it."
Messi did make it, and spectacularly so, but Vecchio first wants to clarify something worth bearing in mind for any parents whose children take part in sport. "The parents push me to let their own kids play, of course. I say to the kids, 'look, boys, I'm a parent too. But the only thing your parents should do is bring you here to play. The responsibility [of training you] is ours, because parents aren't coaches.' Now if they want to be coaches, great; they can go and do a course, get a qualification, put the work in and head out to the pitch to manage. Let's see how easy they find it...
"Lionel, on the other hand," Vecchio continues, "when he started coming here, he played for us. There were other parents who took their kids straight off to a different club to play as soon as training with us had ended, but Lionel played for Newell's. Once, we lent him to one of the neighbourhood teams for a tournament, but that was it. That's because his father had also played and he knew that all the pressure other parents piled on their kids had a big influence."
Jorge Messi might have understood the importance of that dynamic, but in many ways, it can seem as if the rest of the country has misunderstood it on a grand scale. The cliche in these parts says that Argentina is a country of 40 million football managers; at times, it can feel more like a country of 40 million parents of Lionel Messi. Many are good parents, the kind Ernesto Vecchio would like: supporting him, feeling his disappointments without pressuring him for more. Equally, many are high-pressure observers.
"MESSI," MY FRIEND ANDRES tells me, "is a footballing genius. It's a luxury for our national team to be able to call on him, although I think [Javier] Mascherano is a more natural captain. There are plenty who question [Messi] for a lack of titles with Argentina, but I don't think that's so serious when we assess how good a player he is; at the end of the day, a little more luck and he'd have won a World Cup. In terms of his place in football history, it would count in his favour if he did win one, of course, but it's not all on him that he hasn't yet."
Boca Juniors fan Fran broadly agrees. "Spain and Germany were better teams overall than Argentina, so we can't blame Messi for those shortcomings because a one-man team like [Diego] Maradona's in 1986 comes along once in a lifetime. And it's not like [Messi] hasn't come close!"
Messi has been similarly decisive since childhood, according to Vecchio, albeit not always in an attacking role. "When I took over his age group, Leo was playing as a No. 5 [deep-lying central midfielder]. He wasn't that kind of player, sliding on the ground, winning the ball. He was a distinto."
Distinto is Spanish for "different," but in a footballing sense, it's often used to denote a preternaturally talented player.
"[Messi] was a player you needed to get the ball to, to let him play," adds Vecchio. "So I got a player in from Argentino de Rosario to play as our No. 5, and let Messi loose. And God it was impressive, a kid of 8 or 9 years of age who did what he'd do with the ball! I always tell people, the same stuff he does now, he was doing at that age. Exactly the same."
Vecchio talks with a certain air of paternalism not just of Messi, but of all the players he has coached. If there's one memory that doesn't seem so fond, it's of Messi's exit from Newell's, although the displeasure clearly isn't aimed at the player.
"From the last time he trained with me, about a month went by and then I found out he wasn't in Newell's youth team any more but had gone to Barcelona," Vecchio says. "He'd been taken over there by a gentleman who was ... I'd say an 'intermediary.' He wasn't an agent. These guys often have a door open in various clubs and they'll introduce a player here and there, and that's what I think happened with Leo."
One of Messi's teammates remembers his exit from the club the same way. Nicolas Canessa was a year above Messi in Newell's youth teams, but the two played together in some tournaments when Messi was moved up an age group to strengthen the side.
"One week he disappeared," Canessa says. "No one knew where he was. We were told he was ill, that he had the flu or something, and in fact he'd gone for trials with Barcelona. We only found out that that was what had happened afterwards, of course. I got the impression it was a surprise for him as well.
"We talked on Skype during the World Cup in Brazil. Mostly I was wishing him good luck, have a good game, that kind of thing." When asked how Messi acted with the pressure of a big tournament, Canessa's answer was simple. "He's always calm. He was optimistic that things were going to go well. He always gives everything and tries to do his best for the national team. That he's not won anything yet has more to do with the other things football throws up than with him in particular."
THE RECOGNITION OF MESSI'S importance to the national team has been a long time coming, perhaps because Argentina spent such a long time being told one or another players was the "new Maradona." And people grew weary.
Diego Latorre, who debuted for Boca Juniors in 1987, was the first player to be given the moniker, which has subsequently been foisted upon players including Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Javier Saviola, Juan Román Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and others.
All wonderful players in their own right, there's no denying it, but none close to Maradona's level. By the time Messi broke through, it had long since become a cliche but, these days, no one calls Messi the new Maradona; instead, there's significant debate around the world over whether Messi might be even better.
"I'm always going to defend [Messi]," Vecchio says. "Not because I trained him, but because we're talking about different eras. Maradona was Maradona in his era, and he won a World Cup. Messi is Messi now, and the only thing missing is for him to win a World Cup. Everything else, he's done. He's broken every record going; I don't think there's any comparison with Maradona. If Messi does win a World Cup," -- here, he gives a half shrug and a raise of the eyebrows, an inquisitive look -- "what are they going to say then?"
Early in Messi's international career, it wasn't only in his homeland that he was criticised for not performing for Argentina in the manner with which he did for Barcelona. That perception seemed to change abroad after his first hat trick for the national team in a friendly against Switzerland in 2012. Just a few months later, he bagged his second hat trick in a friendly against Brazil in New Jersey. Those displays, and the brilliant individual and link-up play he and his attacking teammates displayed throughout Argentina's 2014 World Cup qualifying run, helped shift perceptions.
Having visited Argentina regularly since 2003 and lived here since 2010, it was hard not to notice the change brought about by the Brazil World Cup. The same patrons in the same Buenos Aires bars had their minds changed, even if at least one of them remains too stubborn to admit as much. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, a new acquaintance told me "we're destined to win this year. You know why? It's 2010. And who have we got managing us? Hmm?"
The appeal to Diego Maradona's old shirt number didn't carry over to its current occupant; after humiliation at the hands of Germany in the quarterfinals that year, the same person told me it had been Messi's fault and not that of Maradona's inconceivable tactical decisions.
When I saw him briefly after the 2014 final, his tone had changed. "[Sergio] Aguero is always f-----g injured, [Gonzalo] Higuaín is too fat and slow, and if it hadn't been for Messi, we'd have gone out in the group stage." He denied this was a change of tune, but it's one that has been echoed -- and, it must be said, normally acknowledged -- by many.
Ezequiel Fernandez Moores is one of South America's most well-regarded football writers and dates the change in public opinion to before the 2014 World Cup.
"For me, the World Cup qualifier in Barranquilla (Argentina came from 1-0 down at half-time to beat Colombia 2-1 and kick-start the Alejandra Sabella era in earnest) marked a clear "before and after" point," says Fernandez Moores. "It's true that the two finals that followed, at the World Cup and last year's Copa America, were dips compared with his previous form in both tournaments, and that last impression, from the finals, is the one that gets remembered. It's unfair, in my opinion, but it stays with him.
"It's not only with Argentina, though," Fernandez Moores continues. "When he plays poorly for Barcelona or when Barcelona lose, you almost always see everyone focusing on him. It's inevitable when you have such a great player. Messi's had 10 years winning everything or nearly everything, remaining at the very top, and almost always managing to better his own previous best level. The pressure doesn't seem to matter to him."
Messi's friend Canessa says: "I don't think Messi needs anything more, but as for what he himself thinks? Knowing him, I'm sure the thing he most wants, the itch he's still got to scratch, is to win a championship [with Argentina]. It'd be the cherry on top of the cake."
Sam Kelly covers Argentine football and the Argentine national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.