x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Messi looks to prove his worth to Argentina

The Argentine forward has failed to win over many of his compatriots playing for the national side, writes Ian Hawkey.

Lionel Messi, right, is hoping to inspire Argentina to Copa America success.
Lionel Messi, right, is hoping to inspire Argentina to Copa America success.

It has been a while since Lionel Messi spent an uninterrupted month in his native Argentina.

It is well over 10 years now since a tiny 13-year-old travelled to Spain to seek opportunity, by way of a trial with Barcelona.

The rest is gilded history, a succession of achievements which has left little space for long holidays with his family and former classmates.

The day when Messi will have spent more of his young life in Catalonia than in Rosario, where he was born and grew up, creeps closer. That fact partly explains the peculiar pressure under which the world's finest footballer embarks on the Copa America, a tournament where success has become puzzlingly elusive for Argentinians of the Messi generation.

"I have a longing to win something very big with Argentina," said Messi in the lead-up to the opening fixtures of the tournament.

He knows his compatriots need to hear such statements, to feel reassured that the winner of the last Ballon d'Or has an urge to lift his national team as high as he has done Barcelona, the club where Messi has won three European Champions League titles in the last six seasons.

Messi's relationship with Argentina has been more problematic than his upwards, soaring journey with Barcelona.

Not long before last year's World Cup, radio chat shows were animated by debates about whether or not Messi should be in his country's starting line-up.

Messi has travelled home in summers before this one to read roadside graffiti proclaiming him unpatriotic, not caring about his national team.

Even after Messi argued with Barcelona for his right to play in the 2008 Olympic Games - he provided the pass that set up the goal to win the gold medal for Argentina - the suggestion could still be heard, even from the lips of Diego Maradona, the head coach of the national team until last year and now the coach of Dubai's Al Wasl in the Pro League, that the player was less committed in sky blue and white stripes than he was when performing in cherry-red-and blue ones.

Maradona went through a phase of almost undermining Messi. At one stage, after Messi had inspired Barcelona to six trophies in 2009, he said "he plays for himself". By the 2010 World Cup finals, he was praising the player effusively, beaming over his "integration" into the squad.

Messi still went home early from that tournament, when Argentina were thrashed by Germany in the quarter-finals. One problem, plainly, surrounded how Maradona, Argentina's chief tactician, had failed to build a system to best exploit Messi's gifts.

The task is not straightforward. Messi shines as often as he does for his club because he has been brought up with a determined playing style, with routines drilled into him since he was 13; he has Xavi and Andres Iniesta, fellow Barcelona youth graduates, thinking on his wavelength, week in, week out.

Sergio Batista, Maradona's successor, has sought to replicate much more closely in the Argentina side the conditions and positions that Messi operates in for Barca, but there are still sceptics to win over.

Messi had them in mind when on Tuesday, he told a South American newspaper: "When I have finished playing for Barca, I want to come back to Argentina to play." He wanted to sound like he misses his birthplace while he is shining in Europe.

Messi was only six years old the last time his country won the Copa America, a prize held second only to the World Cup in prestige among the South American nations.

There are significant distinctions to be made, however, between how the Copa is perceived by its competitors and, say, the way the European Championship, the Asian Cup or the African Cup of Nations is valued on those continents.

There is haphazardness about its structure, a history that has seen it switch from annual to biennial, to triennial, to every four summers; and there is the novelty of inviting outside guests that began nearly two decades ago, and persists, with countries such as Mexico, the USA and Japan regular contestants. This year the Mexicans and Costa Rica are there.

The modern Copa is also significantly distinct from its equivalents in Europe, Asia or Africa for not having a qualifying stage. South America is vast place, but its frontiers are few. Ten nations make up the official membership of Conmebol, the confederation that governs their football. They all reach the final tournament of the Copa.

And the established heavyweights do not necessarily triumph. Brazil, the five-time world champions, have only won the South American championship eight times. Argentina and Uruguay have each taken the title on 14 occasions, dating back to when it took place annually.

But the holders are Brazil, extra motivated to retain their crown because the tournament is taking place on the soil of their fiercest rivals. And several Brazilians have personal points to prove.

Neymar, the lavishly skilled teenage striker who has just helped Santos to win the South American club championship, is admired by Real Madrid and Chelsea. The Copa America, widely broadcast around the globe, is an important catwalk for him.

Indeed the concentration of players animating the European summer transfer market - where most of the wealth is - and performing in Argentine stadiums over the next three weeks is startling.

Chile's Alexis Sanchez, for example, is having his potential transfer fee auctioned up and up by Udinese, who have been taking calls from leading clubs in the Premier League and La Liga.Colombia's Radamel Falcao is inevitably being targeted after his stirring season for Porto.

Manchester City's Carlos Tevez has been known for his fierce determination to win since his days at Boca Juniors. The word is that Tevez would like Batista's Argentina to play a less Messi-based game, too.

It will be interesting to note Tevez's demeanour over the coming weeks.



More Copa America, s8-9