Erratic Argentina has one weapon every opponent fears: Lionel Messi
Still, look at him: hunched in a chair like a kid hauled into the principal's office, pausing after each question to glance at his manager-brother,
Adidas had offered up its soccer show pony for a 30-minute chat, but once it became clear that the discussion would touch on the Argentine national team and its tempestuous coach,
"What's tiresome," he says in Spanish, "is always being asked the same question."
The words hang in the air a few seconds; then Messi is asked how it has been to play for the man. "I'm sorry," the Adidas marketing man says, "we have to leave the Maradona questions aside. He's trying to change to another topic."
So Messi doesn't want to talk about Maradona -- his father's idol, the playing genius he eerily resembles, the combustible force who controls Messi's hope of winning the 2010 World Cup --
Such news hardly comes as a shock. Their marriage has felt strained since September 2008, a month before Maradona took over, when he clucked, "Sometimes Messi plays for himself; he feels so superior that he forgets his teammates." The Albiceleste's campaign to qualify for the World Cup was a dispiriting slog marked by ever-changing lineups, bewildered stars and debacles like a 6-1 loss in Bolivia. Messi, who scored four goals in 67 minutes against Arsenal on April 6, mustered only one in 10 qualifiers under Maradona. Last October, after Argentina squeaked by Uruguay to make the field, Maradona held a press conference and told his critics to "suck it and keep sucking," for which he received a two-month ban by FIFA. Relief, elation, dread? By day's end, lovers of Argentine football had no idea what to feel.
No one looked more drained than Messi. Too often during qualifying he had appeared listless and had flown back to Barcelona in a funk. "Very down -- you could see it," says one Barça staffer. "[Argentina] was playing defensively, and he was alone up front. You had to wonder, Is Maradona sabotaging him?"
But Maradona wasn't the only one being ripped. Messi too was blamed for Argentina's woeful play, and he found himself living a paradox: Even as people around the world likened his work in Barcelona to that of magicians such as
"More than 100 players were called up for the national team, and only one was to blame?" says Messi's father,
In theory, of course, Maradona figured to be a vital resource for Messi. Who, after all, is better positioned to give advice -- superstar to superstar -- on the Argentine press and on the burden and joy of being the best player alive? Who better to warn Messi how hangers-on and yes-men (like the comically sycophantic band of "
"In truth," Messi says, "no."
Even when the topic shifts, Messi gives little away. He says he "dreams of winning all the titles," admits that he cried upon leaving home at 13 to play in Barcelona and declares, "I never get nervous before I play," but all of it is delivered in a curt monotone, with nothing resembling Pelé's playfulness or Cruyff's imagination. This is nothing new; reporters have been banging their heads against Messi's reticence for years. He is not so much hostile to the press as uninterested in the subject of himself; he barely lit up earlier today for the Adidas film crew, in town for an in-house interview, and the company is paying him $4 million a year.
Shyness can be underrated, however, especially at a time when every emerging jock is dancing and tweeting in a desperate grab to "become a personality" and "expand his brand." The fact is, with a talent as otherworldly as Messi's, charm would be a distraction.
Diamond earrings flashing, waistline ballooning, marriage falling apart, Maradona soon became a cartoon figure. He had an image of
So it's refreshing to find Messi's off-field act to be conspicuously anti-Diego: mall haircut, hangdog slouch, no jewelry or body art. Throw in the nickname La Pulga -- the Flea -- and Messi comes off like the guy who rotates your tires. "Maradona swaggers," says
Yet on the field no one else resembles Maradona more. It's not just that at 5'7", Messi is the same diminutive whirlwind, "able to dribble past people like they are not there," as Barça striker
Messi has claimed to have read only one book, Maradona's autobiography,
Rexach believes Messi has the tools to surpass Maradona. And while Rexach acknowledges that Barça's brilliant playmakers
Bursting through seams no one else can see, staying on his feet despite being slashed by two or three defenders at once, Messi has indeed shifted Maradona's
"People talk about basketball players, how they run full speed but they're in control of the ball with their hands, but that's way easier," Henry continues. "Running with the ball at your feet at full speed and being able to see, [being] aware of what is happening around you, [while] people are trying to make you fall? Leo is always kind of falling, but he doesn't go down. I would love to have his first step, and his double dribbles, but it's him being small [and] quick: He touches the ball every step of his run. It's impossible to do what he does. I go one-two-three, push the ball, one-two-three, push the ball. If I want to touch it every time, I [have to] slow down. But he can go full speed:
The easy conclusion, of course, is that the country is mad. Yes, anyplace can seem bizarre to a stranger, but let's agree that Argentina's lunacy is more obvious than, say, Denmark's. Argentina is, after all, the nation with the most psychoanalysts per capita; the country whose still-feverish devotion to a long-dead First Lady resulted in a town, Ciudad Evita, built in the shape of her head; the land where citizens fearlessly consume beef for breakfast or with afternoon coffee and erupt in street protests for any reason at all. On an April afternoon, for example, picketers halted rush-hour traffic on the highway into Buenos Aires, expressing outrage over the damage caused by a recent hailstorm. "Protesting the hail," said a lifelong resident with a shrug. "Of course."
Still, it's another thing for a country to indulge its own lunacy where its most prized possession is concerned. When in October 2008 longtime Argentina Football Association (AFA) president
"Argentina is used to living from crisis to crisis to crisis, and life always goes on," says
Consider: One of international soccer's most storied programs, a two-time World Cup champion, was placed in the hands of a man with no international coaching experience and a paltry three wins in 23 matches during his sole stint as a club coach, with Argentina's Deportivo Mandiyú in 1994 and Racing Club in '95. Why? Speculation ranged widely: Maradona was owed the position for all he accomplished as a player; his popularity made it impossible for the AFA not to give him at least one shot; Grondona had feuded with or rejected other candidates and, when
Grondona declined to talk to
Strange indeed. Maradona's curious stewardship has the nation peeking through its fingers. Grondona appointed
Argentina will open the World Cup, then, as the tournament's most perplexing team. Grouped with Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, the Albiceleste should make it to the knockout stage, but Maradona has yet to show he knows how to maximize Messi's performance. The coach has alienated midfielder
Whether Maradona lacks the imagination to make a wholesale strategic shift on Messi's behalf isn't clear. "If I had to change for his good, I'd change," Maradona said in March. "But I think that with ... the players we have, all he needs to do is explode, and surely he will do that at the World Cup." The coach declined to elaborate for
"They have many wonderful players, but they're not a team; I don't know what's going on right now," says
Maradona has been the most important cultural figure in the country for 25 years because, in his combination of brilliance and self-destruction, he reflects part of the national character in a way that Messi never could. It's not just that Messi hasn't performed well for the national side. It's his life inside what observers call "his football bubble." It's the widespread perception that because Messi, a product of Barcelona's streamlined youth academy, La Masía, has lived for the past decade in Spain, he has almost no gut-level connection with the nation now depending on him.
"He went to Europe at 13, and he went to the perfect team," says Fernández Moores. "In Argentina we have an expression:
"When he came back to Argentina last year, the person waiting for him, controlling the press, was a barrabrava -- a hooligan, not an AFA official. That's the Argentine style. In that sense, Maradona is perfect as coach."
And that's why, if Argentina bombs out of this World Cup, Maradona will not be blamed alone. Messi bears the expatriate's burden, and speculation about his woes in the national stripes centers less on strategy than on what goes on in his heart and mind.
"It's the question everyone is asking," says
A crisp April morning in Rosario: Jorge Messi sits on the terrace of his restaurant, VIP. Word is that about $500,000 was pumped into renovations, and the slick bistro is packed most nights; everyone knows it as the Messis' place. Yet there are no posters or signed jerseys on display, no breast-beating salutes to Leo. This might seem odd, considering that Leo is the era's latest offering, in any sport, of greatness in its prime. But Jorge isn't sure Leo's success was worth all the trouble.
"If you asked me if I'd do the same thing today, I'd say no," he says. "I don't regret anything, but it was too hard to live [through] again."
The problem wasn't soccer; despite Leo's size, playing was never hard for him. Growing up in the scrappy working-class neighborhood known as La Bajada (the Descent), Leo never shied from playing with the pals of his older brothers,
Manicabale leads the way past Leo's elementary school to a nearby clutch of soccer fields. Matías Messi, 28, misses an easy score as his neighbor walks up. Matías's team loses, he gathers his gear and begins walking toward the postgame grill. "He was the same then as he is now," Matías says of Leo. "He'd be happier playing football for free than doing something else for a hundred million euros."
At seven, Leo followed Rodrigo and joined the youth program of Newell's Old Boys. In one game that is still talked about, Leo dribbled upfield as, one by one, seven opponents tried to kick him. All missed. "He was a machine," says
When Leo was 10, Jorge and his wife,
The medicine was expensive -- $1,000 for a 45-day regime -- and after two years Jorge's employer, a steel manufacturer, stopped its coverage. Jorge made no more than $1,700 over 45 days, and with Leo now 13 and attracting attention from other clubs, Jorge asked Newell's to pay for the treatment. After giving the Messis three payments totaling $500, Jorge says, Newell's cooled on the idea. "We didn't want to beg," Jorge says, "so we started looking at other options." Jorge flirted with Buenos Aires power River Plate, but eventually Barcelona stepped in and offered to cover the full cost. That's where the story usually pivots onto positive ground: Eventually Leo not only got the medicine needed to grow to 5'7" but was also surrounded by the players and the coaches he needed to realize his potential. But the move nearly broke the Messi family.
Jorge moved Celia, their three sons and their five-year-old daughter,
In discussing his five years in the Newell's youth program, Messi dwells on the bitter end: The club wouldn't pay for his treatment, he says, and Barcelona did. The result is that Newell's is now known, worldwide, for making one of the biggest mistakes in soccer history. But in a dispute that has only further separated Messi from his roots, both
Almirón, Newell's football school director then, corroborates the $8,000 figure and says he always made the payments in cash, to Celia. Sitting in a Rosario hotel lobby in April, he fans out nine receipts signed, he says, by Celia. But five of the fresh, unwrinkled receipts show payments of $200 or less. Only two sets of receipts are dated the same months, April and July 2000, and they total $305 and $240 -- below what Almirón says he gave the Messis, and well below what Jorge says the treatment cost.
The amounts involved, of course, are minuscule, and Almirón and Morales are no longer with Newell's. The club's new president has taken pains to reach out to the Messis, and last year Jorge responded with a $29,000 donation for the Newell's training facility. But bitterness about Leo's departure simmers on both sides -- and it's not only at Newell's that people have mixed feelings about Rosario's most famous son.
Across town at Messi's boyhood field at Abanderado Grandoli, families still fill the small grandstand on Saturdays, and fathers still clutch at the hurricane fence while staring at their boys' games. Yes, Messi is a point of pride here, says Grandoli youth soccer club president
"He never came back here, not since he left for Barcelona," says Vecchio. "I've never spoken to him again." After Brazil beat Argentina in Rosario last September, Vecchio stood outside the stadium for an hour, chatting up Jorge and Celia, waiting for Leo to emerge so he could get a word. When Messi hurried onto the team bus, Vecchio figured his chance had passed. Then Messi sat and saw him through the window. He recognized his old coach, and his eyes lit up, and he grinned and waved, looking small again behind the glass.
Pancho Ferraro is tired of hearing it -- from his brothers-in-law, from the journalists and the fans he bumps up against in bars, even from his own sister: What's wrong with Messi? Does he even care about playing for Argentina? "It's painful to get this even from my own family," Ferraro says. "I'm always defending Messi. This controversy says more about the Argentine people than about him: We can't enjoy it when we have good things. We always see the dark side, the glass half empty, and we can't just enjoy the kid who is us. He's our boy. I know how Messi loves to wear the Argentine colors; I know his commitment."
Despite his gratitude to Barcelona, in 2004 Messi turned down an invitation to play for the Spanish national team. Ferraro has seen Messi twice lead Argentine teams to world championships. As coach of Argentina's 2005 U-20 World Cup team, in fact, Ferraro almost saw his own career end before it began; he left Messi on the bench in the first half of the first game and, sin of sins, lost to the U.S. "I died," he says, "and then I came back to life."
Messi brought him back. Messi scored six goals in eight games, was named the tournament's MVP, turned 18 midway through the event but still stood up in the locker room before the semifinal against Brazil and said, "This is Brazil. We cannot make a mistake, or we'll lose. But we're going to win." He scored in the sixth minute to lead the 2-1 victory, then scored twice more to beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final. Only once in the tournament did Messi cause a problem. After Argentina qualified for the second round, Ferraro removed him from a meaningless second half against Germany, and Messi stalked off the field, refusing to look at Ferraro. Afterward, at the hotel, Messi found his coach and apologized. "I didn't mean to do that, but I always want to play," he said. "I don't feel good sitting down."
"I've never seen him do that to another coach," Ferraro says. "With Messi, you don't need to give him the captain's armband -- you need to give him the ball. It's his toy. He's a child. He relates to football like a child."
That is the underreported fact about one of the most scrutinized people in the world: his childlike joy. You could see it in Barcelona when he skidded on his ass and sat wide-eyed, legs splayed, like a kid in a mud puddle, after scoring his fourth goal against Arsenal. Maradona never had that joy; his was a bullying kind of artistry. All of Messi's furious work -- all that scampering, that teetering, that lashing with the left foot -- is just tracing on a map, the trail of a man in search of his bliss. "And when he's happy," says Barcelona coach
It's late April, and Messi is happier now. He had a two-hour meeting with Maradona in March, which may well have put coach and star on the same page at last. But mostly he's happy because he's in Barcelona with a few La Liga games left and goals to score and no one doubting him. That will change soon, though, and Messi will go home to Rosario, to La Bajada, to the land where his father is feeling the heat.
"He's Argentinian," Jorge says of his son. "He feels Argentinian. I feel he's been loved [in Europe] but not here. It's very common here to feel that if anyone succeeds overseas, you can't feel he's one of yours. So the press instills the idea that Messi is not Argentinian, that he lives like a Catalan, because he made it without playing here. Leo is really downhearted about it."
If Argentina wins the World Cup, of course, all that will disappear. Messi will have saved the Argentine hero, saved Maradona from himself, and the Diego legend will take its newest and craziest twist. But if Argentina loses? Then all those criticisms and all the cracks in Messi's relationship with the country will only grow; then his dealings with the media will be ever more frayed.
He's young. There will be other World Cups. But Maradona will be gone, probably in a cloud of fury and invective, and Messi will have no choice but to rebuild, Argentine-style: Grab some wire, duct tape, a bit of glue. Apply. Let dry. And hope -- no, insist -- to everyone that the damn thing will end up working just fine.