Gregory Sica
Wednesday December 30th, 2009

When the soccer historians look back at this past year, 2009 undoubtedly will go down as the year of FC Barcelona. The Spanish giants won an unprecedented six titles -- winning every tournament in which they participated -- and became the most successful squad in history. While Barça has arguably the most depth of any squad in the world, with quality players at every position, its domination wouldn't have been possible without the inspiration of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Messi was extraordinary for Barcelona, and last week was awarded for his individual achievements by being named FIFA World Player of the Year for 2009. "La Pulga" blew away his closest rivals, winning the vote by a lopsided margin after a memorable campaign in which he scored 38 goals in 51 matches in all competitions.

More than a few of those goals were clutch -- not only did Messi score Barcelona's winning goal (a sensational header) against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final, but earlier this past month, he scored his team's winner in extra time in the Club World Cup final against Argentina's Estudiantes de La Plata.

But while that goal was also a gem -- Messi expertly chested home a precise Dani Alves cross -- it also sparked a great deal of controversy and called out further attention to Messi's only weakness: success with the Argentine national team.

Back in La Plata, frustrated Estudiantes fans couldn't accept that Messi had inflicted defeat upon their team, and some reacted by demonstrating their disapproval of the diminutive superstar. Those supporters, who have become accustomed to seeing Messi rake in the titles with Barcelona while continuing to under-perform for the national team, expressed their anger by spray-painting insults on walls throughout the city in protest.

The common perception in Argentina is that Messi is more Spanish than Argentine -- he's one player when playing for his club and another when he suits up for his country. The 22-year-old Messi may have guided Argentina to the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, as well as the Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands in '05 (scoring both of Argentina's goals in the final), but he has failed to make an impact with the senior team.

What particularly annoys Argentine fans is that Messi was clearly the best player in the world during the '08-09 European season with his consistently outstanding play for Barça. But each time he arrived in South America for World Cup qualifying, he was completely off his game and didn't appear to come close to having the same level of motivation for his national team. As a result, many Argentines started referring to him as a "pecho frío" -- literally, "cold chest," a term given to somebody with little feeling or emotion.

With Messi a non-factor during key games, including a devastating home defeat to archrival Brazil in September, it was even rumored that Argentina boss Diego Maradona might go to the extreme of dropping the attacker for future games (which never happened, as Argentina pulled out a berth in the 2010 World Cup on its final match day).

Even Brazilian President Lula da Silva, a passionate fan of the Seleção, is one of many observers who have differentiated between Messi's game with Barcelona and that with los Albicelestes.

"Thank God Messi doesn't play for the Argentine national team even 10 percent as good as he does for Barcelona," Lula told Brazilian radio station O Dia. "That leaves us Brazilians satisfied."

Even if almost the entire load of the pressure was fixated on Maradona during qualifying -- whether it be for the poor results, his bizarre team selections or the fact that his side couldn't find a clear game plan -- it was obvious the team was also suffering from the absence of the "real" Messi.

The Argentine press came to two conclusions over his deep struggles: that Messi is complemented by better players at Barcelona and that he doesn't have the same passion for the Argentina jersey that he has for Barcelona's because he has spent the past 10 years living in Spain, and owes everything to the club. (Although Messi was a youth product of Rosario-based club Newell's Old Boys, he never played an Argentine Primera División match.)

Messi migrated to Spain at age 12 because Barcelona (which noticed his tremendous potential) was willing to take care of his medical expenses after he was diagnosed with a growth-hormone deficiency. With the help of Barça, Messi quickly moved up the club's youth ranks, and broke into the first team in '04 at age 17.

Argentines are well known for their patriotism, whether it's in soccer or any other activity, for that matter. And although they were kept informed of Messi's progress over the years, they often questioned his loyalty to Argentina.

"I get annoyed when they say that I don't feel the Albiceleste [jersey]," Messi was quoted by Spanish daily El País last week. "Nothing makes me angrier than them to tell me that I'm not an Argentine. What do they know about my emotions?"

"Life took me to Barcelona. As a child, I dreamed about playing in the Argentine first division, to put on the Albiceleste; nothing gives me more motivation. I think like an Argentine and I live in Catalonia, but I feel very Argentine. For one, it is very difficult to talk about emotions, so how do they know how I feel? I don't mind them calling me 'the Catalan,' but I get annoyed when they treat me like I'm not an Argentine."

Messi may have failed to produce his club form with his country during World Cup qualifying, but the explanation isn't as simple as a supposed lack of heart. At Barcelona, he's surrounded by a much more compact side, with very intelligent teammates and a coach who knows exactly how to get the most out of him.

When Pep Guardiola arrived at the Camp Nou, Messi's influence grew considerably. With the departures of Ronaldinho and Deco, Messi was provided with a greater responsibility within the squad, which allowed him to flourish like never before.

The otherworldly quality of Barcelona's midfield is another factor. The uncanny vision and sublime distribution of Spanish internationals Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been essential in Messi's rise. Both players have done a brilliant job in controlling Barça's midfield, which has given Messi added freedom to work to his strengths: his ability to penetrate defenses with his blistering speed, allowing him to find the back of the net on a regular basis.

With Argentina, however, the situation is much different. Los Albicelestes lack a clear game plan under Maradona. Although they have loads of talent, they have no cohesion, particularly because of the lack of a capable anchor man to serve as Messi's Xavi or Iniesta.

Veteran midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón has filled that role at times, but at 34, he's well past his prime and now plays a substantially more defensive role. Whether Maradona likes it or not, the key to unlocking Messi's potential might be the return of Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Román Riquelme. Not only is Riquelme's radar-like passing capable of penetrating the best of defenses, but his intelligent positioning means he's the ideal link between midfield and attack.

In recent weeks, there has been talk that AFA president Julio Grondona could try to convince Maradona and Riquelme to get together in an attempt to sort out their differences. If that's the case, Argentina's chances of making an impact in the World Cup would be boosted considerably. Riquelme's influence on the field would also help take pressure off Messi's shoulders, possibly allowing him to replicate his Barcelona form.

Messi knows the only way he'll be able to silence his critics is by playing a starring role for Argentina at the World Cup. He already has his mind set on South Africa, and sees the tournament as the perfect opportunity to gain the admiration of the Argentine public.

After a flawless year which couldn't have gone any better with Barcelona, Messi outlined his next objective.

"Hopefully I can pick up my game with the national team," he told Argentine daily Olé. "That's what I want most. The only way to improve from what we did this year is by being world champions with the national team."

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