When soccer fans in Brazil rushed the field where Argentina’s national team was training this week, one man ran to Lionel Messi, knelt before him, and bowed. Days earlier, before a World Cup practice match in Buenos Aires, an opposition player shunned protocol by refusing to shake Messi’s hand – bowing instead.
Mr. Messi is widely considered the greatest soccer player in the world. FIFA, the sport’s governing body, awarded him that title every year from 2009 to 2012. His incisive movements with the ball, which regularly flummox defenders, can appear preternatural. Soccer fans everywhere gape at his talent. And some even bow, as if Messi were a deity.
At the World Cup – which some observers tip Argentina to win for the first time since 1986 – Argentines will place all their hopes and expectations on Messi. But they'll do so almost reluctantly.
In Argentina, Messi is not a loved figure. “There’s a distance, a distrust between Argentines and Messi,” says Eduardo Sacheri, an author here of soccer fiction. Many do not feel that Messi, who left the country as a boy to play soccer in Europe, represents them. He is often aloof in a society that prides itself on being open and passionate. When Messi does reveal his thoughts, he’s often diplomatic, a stark contrast to countrymen who express their viewpoints fiercely.
Even his good behavior is problematic. Diego Maradona, the legendary player who guided the national team to the 1986 World Cup title, has led a turbulent life involving addiction, bans from soccer, and bitter public disputes. But that “effervescence,” says Facundo Quiroga, a founding editor of the sports newspaper Olé, draws people to Mr. Maradona. Messi, by contrast, is “too tranquil to awake excitement among Argentines,” says Mr. Sacheri.
Messi grew up in a working class neighborhood of Rosario, Argentina’s third-largest city. He lacks the romantic image attached to other figures on the national team, both past and present, who were born into poverty and forged their talent on dirt pitches called potreros.
Messi then moved to Barcelona when he was just 13 years old. Argentines never saw him play in the domestic league here. Instead, they followed from afar his development at FC Barcelona, the club where he still plays. “We got to know Messi through the armored glass of television,” Sacheri says.
Messi has played his best soccer for FC Barcelona. Last season, his form dipped following an injury, but he still scored 41 goals in 44 matches. For the national team, however, he has largely struggled. And fans have jeered him for not singing the national anthem.
His performances have improved under Alejandro Sabella, Argentina’s national coach, who made Messi the captain and centerpiece of the team in 2011. “After that,” says Martín Mazur, a writer at El Gráfico, a soccer magazine, “it wasn’t so important whether we thought he knew the anthem.”
But the only way Messi can permanently win the devotion of Argentines, observers say, is for him to equal Maradona’s feat of steering Argentina to the World Cup title. Playing a big role in a triumph for Argentina is “the only thing,” says Sacheri, “capable of sealing a sense of identity between Messi and Argentina.”