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
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. "
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
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 "
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
Even Brazilian President
"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
"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.
The otherworldly quality of Barcelona's midfield is another factor. The uncanny vision and sublime distribution of Spanish internationals
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.
In recent weeks, there has been talk that AFA president
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