Lionel Messi has a score to settle with the city of Berlin
BERLIN -- The image forms part of the history of the World Cup. A young Lionel Messi, sitting on the bench, gazing towards the horizon in search of an explanation that is not forthcoming. Jose Pekerman decided not to bring him on in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany and Argentina's rough diamond suffered from the sidelines. Julio Cruz came on in place of Hernan Crespo, which put paid to Messi's chances, and he watched from afar as his side lost the penalty shootout.
That crestfallen look was the world's lasting image of the Rosario-born superstar at Berlin's Olympic Stadium. Argentina were knocked out without their key player even setting foot on the pitch. Almost nine years have passed since that bitter defeat, and now the time has come for Messi to lay to rest the pain of never having had his chance of redemption. He's no longer a kid, Argentine football's great hope who was loved for his audacity. Today he's the best player in the world, one of the greatest ever, a serial record-breaker. But he's got a personal score to settle with Berlin.
Pekerman gave him his debut, filled him with confidence and took him to the World Cup despite his youth and inexperience. The coaching staff's idea was that he would get a feel for the national side, and would gradually begin to feel important. But he was so talented that, from the moment he first pulled on the Argentina shirt, the whole country was calling for him. In spite of this, the coach stuck to his plan and Messi only started against the Netherlands in the third game of the group stage.
Messi scored a goal in the 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro and played a key role in the second round game against Mexico, when he came on and injected pace into the attack. Argentina arrived in Berlin as one of the best teams in the tournament and, in the eyes of many, their game against the hosts would have made a fitting final.
The renovated Olympic Stadium was a magnificent setting. The 72,000 spectators were silenced when Roberto Ayala opened the scoring early in the second half. The visitors were the better side and controlled the game until, after 26 minutes of the second half, goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri collided with Miroslav Klose and had to be replaced. This enforced substitution impacted Messi's chances of coming on. Pekerman lost a substitution and opted to use the remaining two by bringing on Esteban Cambiasso (for Juan Roman Riquelme) and Julio Cruz (for Crespo). The whole world hoped that the final substitution would see the Barcelona idol enter the fray.
He watched the penalties with the sadness of a child whose most precious toy had been taken away. This is much more than a metaphor. It is the harshest reality. Messi didn't try and hide his sadness at being confined to the bench. It was there for all to see, and he didn't even bother to join his teammates to watch the penalty shootout. He wanted to be out there and his heartache at missing out overcame any other feelings. That's why it's so important for him to return to that stage. Because he didn't have chance to do the most important thing in the world to him: play.
Hugo Tocalli, who served as an assistant to Pekerman during the 2006 World Cup, explains that controversial decision: "Everyone criticizes us because, in the last game that we drew with Germany, when we made our last remaining change, we were winning 1-0 and didn't bring him on. If we played the game over again, we'd do the same thing. Don't forget that in the previous game, we were drawing 1-1 when Messi and [Pablo] Aimar came on; what I mean is, we weren't being unreasonable or siding against Messi".
On June 6, there will be two more Argentinians on the pitch at the Olympic Stadium who also shed a tear that day. Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez both started the game and at least had the chance to change history on the pitch. Nine years later, fate reunites them in the same place. They're no longer those kids with limitless potential. They are the stars of world football, players with dozens of titles who are facing a new challenge. Similar to those they have already overcome. But different.