Argentina is a country which is always suffering from divided opinions due to its mixed culture of natives and European hybrids (mainly Spanish). Their economy is in shambles, people are on the street protesting daily against the government. People of Argentina suffer from their hardcore beliefs, their superstitions, their strong obsession with divinity and destiny. They are a divided lot. But one thing, one important thing which unites them without any doubt is football.
They are so passionate about their national team that one could even postpone or miss his/her marriage to watch the Albiceleste play, as the joke goes. The Albiceleste were the finalists of the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and they have been a regular customer at the World Cup since then.
Their most cherished moment came in 1978 when Argentina hosted the World Cup and won on home soil under the able leadership of captain Daniel Passarella and manager César Luis Menotti.
Daniel Passarella lifting the 1978 World Cup on home soil
But the one World Cup campaign which the Argentineans remember most fondly is the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico.
Before the tournament began, the national team was in jeopardy and dismissed as a weak team despite the presence on a certain Diego Maradona in the squad. However, the Albiceleste rode their luck and overcame the odds to the heroics of Diego Maradona and his supporting cast to win the exciting final against West Germany by 3-2.
This achievement skyrocketed Diego Maradona’s popularity throughout the world and back there in Argentina, they gave him the status of their God. People of Argentina even opened a church in his name such as his place among the hearts of the Argentineans.
Diego Maradona lifting the 1986 World Cup in Azteca stadium Mexico
Almost one year after that emphatic victory in Azteca stadium, Mexico; a boy was born to a couple living in Rosario, Argentina.
Rosario has been the birthplace to many Argentinean legends in the past such as César Luis Menotti, Marcelo Bielsa, Maximiliano Rodriguez, and the rebel Che Guevara.
Little did the couple knew that another legend has been born to them. They named him Lionel Andrés Messi. There are many stories available on the internet about childhood and growth to the legendary status of Lionel Messi. But what most articles tend to miss out is the connection between Lionel Messi and his Argentinean roots.
A very young Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi spent almost his all teen years and the playing career in FC Barcelona of Catalonia region in Spain. But all these years Messi didn’t lose his identity as an Argentinean, he kept his Rosario dialect intact, ate Argentinean food, kept close relations with his family, married his childhood love, Antonella Roccuzzo, in his hometown and most of all when Spanish FA offered him to play for Spain, he declined in a heartbeat and chose his birth country Argentina.
A young Messi and Antonella
Messi and Antonella after their marriage reception
The word about a diminutive left-footed footballer from Rosario Argentina with unmatched technical ability on the ball and fearless approach started spreading in the famous football academy of FC Barcelona, the La Masia.
Immediately comparisons to Diego Maradona were being made due to the amazing similarity between both the players and their playing style. Messi even emulated Diego Maradona’s famous two goals against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. One being a cheeky handball goal against Espanyol in 2007 and the other being an almost exact replica of the “goal of the century” where Messi started from the halfway line and dribbled past five Getafe defenders and a hapless goalkeeper to score the solo goal much to the bewilderment of the crowd and his own teammates who witnessed the moment with awestruck, hands on their head and their jaws open.
That goal brought the whole world to a stop and the Argentineans immediately knew another Diego has resurfaced for them. Their Messi-ah has arrived.
Argentina didn’t win a single World Cup after that famous 1986 win. They reached the 1990 World Cup final but lost 1-0 to West Germany in a very tedious match.
After Diego Maradona’s retirement from football in 1994, many upcoming talented youngsters from Argentina at least once had to carry the expectations of being the next Diego. But none really stepped up until a young boy from Rosario did the unthinkable and emulated Maradona’s famous goals.
The press went mad, the football fans around the world grew curious about the boy wonder. The “wonderkid”, as famously labeled by the press, didn’t disappoint.
He went on to win trophies after trophies and several individual awards while marking his own place on the pantheon of footballing greats.
Apart from winning almost every trophy possible at his club FC Barcelona, Messi won the U-20 World Cup for Argentina, scoring both the goals in the final against Nigeria and winning the Golden Ball. He also led the Albiceleste to Olympic glory as here also the Albiceleste pipped Nigeria 1-0 to win the Olympic Gold.
However, the ever demanding people of Argentina wanted more from Messi. He was still missing a major trophy with the senior national team. Messi came agonizingly close to winning three Copa America’s and a World Cup, but it was not to be.
This misfortune of him has been the only smudge in his glittering career. Even his own people back in Argentina grew tired of waiting and comparing him to Diego Maradona. The national press criticized him in his every failure, his statue was vandalized in Buenos Aires multiple times. The pain of losing a final again and again along with constant public criticism became so unbearable for him after losing to Chile in the final of Copa America Centenario in 2016 that he decided to quit the national team.
Humans are stupid.
They only realize the true value of something once it is gone.
Argentinean people came out on the streets in thousands, pleading Messi to reverse his decision and come back to the national team. The critics and the supporters, all united in a single aim to persuade Lionel Messi to change his mind as they knew, the Albiceleste is nothing without his presence despite many international stars gracing the team. They knew Messi is the vital cog which makes them tick, he is the x-factor which opponent team fears and he is the only one who can save them.
And soon enough they were proved right.
After his return to the national team in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Messi scored the only goal in 1-0 victory over Uruguay. But he missed initial 8 of the 18 World Cup qualifying matches due to an international ban imposed on him by FIFA for disciplinary action and injuries.
Argentina could only get 7 points out of those 8 matches without Messi and was in danger of missing out the World Cup 2018 due to these poor results.
However, Messi returned and Argentina managed to take 21 out of possible 28 points in Lionel Messi’s presence in the squad. Argentina scored a total of 19 goals in 18 matches of the qualifying campaign, out of which 7 were scored by Lionel Messi himself in the 10 games he played.
This means all those attacking talents at Argentina’s disposal apart from Messi just managed to score 12 goals in total if Messi’s goals are taken out of the equation.
Messi’s 7 goals included the last match hattrick in a do-or-die match against Ecuador which sealed Argentina’s place in the World Cup 2018. People had almost given up but the Messiah, as they started calling him, arrived and saved them.
Argentineans started to believe again. They somehow believed that the newly appointed manager, Jorge Sampaoli, of the national team would work out a system which will bring the best out of the team and make it a force to be reckoned with.
But whatever hopes they formed, it came crashing down to the ground when a Messi less Argentina faced Spain in a friendly match before the World Cup. Spain put not 1, not 2 but 6 goals past a hapless Argentina team which looked all out of sorts, bereft of any ideas, any backbone. Their defense looked shabby throughout the match and the midfield was non-existent.
The thought of this team’s condition and the World Cup just 1 month away put chills down the spine of every Argentinean. The team looked far from ready and the only question on everyone’s mind was, “what exactly Jorge Sampaoli brought to the national team”. There was no formation, no tactic, no plan A, no plan B. The only ray of hope was that Lionel Messi wasn’t playing the match and it could’ve been different had he been there. But then also it wasn’t guaranteed.
Argentinean fears came to realize when Argentina failed to break a resolute Iceland defense and could only get a 1-1 draw in the first group match of the World Cup. It got worse in the next game as the team absolutely lacked to show up and lost hopelessly to a brilliant Croatian team inspired by a brilliant Luka Modric.
This result meant Argentina needed to win the last match against Nigeria and hope Croatia manage to win or draw against Iceland in the match happening simultaneously.
The whole country was praying for a miracle, along with million others halfway around the world. The players were angry, the fans were angry, the whole nation was in disbelief as the team was about to bow out in group stage itself. The golden generation of Argentina who won the U-20 World Cup and the gold Olympic medal just knew it’s now or never for them.
Out came Argentina, hungry to win, determined to win every second ball, ran like mad bulls, sliding challenges flying at every Nigerian player. It was chaos, but it was working for Argentina.
And then it happened!
Ever Banega plucked out a beautifully lofted pass to Messi from the midfield despite the chaos around him. The little genius gave a false sense of security to the poor Nigerian defender before bursting past him, controlling the lofted pass exquisitely on his left thigh then his left leg before delivering an unstoppable shot with his right foot.
The whole stadium erupted, the fans in front of their TVs jumped up and down in joy, the players and the subs ran down to the corner flag to hug Messi. The Messiah has arrived. He has saved Argentina again.
That goal in the 15th minute instilled the much-required belief into the Albiceleste and they kept fighting, more determined than ever.
Although there was a slight twist in the tale as the oldest warrior for Argentina, Javier Mascherano, gave away a penalty and Argentina had their own nervous moments in the second half.
But a late unexpected goal by Marcos Rojo put the result beyond Nigeria and made Argentina’s round of 16 place secure.
Argentina will now play against a strong French team, full of young and experienced talent playing at the highest level, in the round of 16 and almost everyone must have written Argentina off.
But make no mistake, this is a rejuvenated Argentina team who found its lost soul and spirit and it has arguably the world’s best player in their team.
Football is not won on paper, it’s won on the field. And once you get on the field, every team has an equal chance of winning if this World Cup is teaching us anything.