If there’s a moment that captured the melancholy 43 million Argentines simultaneously experienced Sunday night, it came shortly after the game, when a massive gold trophy was thrust into star soccer player Lionel Messi’s hands. He had dreamed of such a moment countless times. The throngs of fans. The bright sheen of the stage. The shiny trophy glistening in his hands.
But it was the wrong trophy. It was the wrong moment. And as Messi, the world’s greatest but least loved soccer star, accepted the Golden Ball as the 2014 World Cup’s best player, all he could do was grimace. He lifelessly shook the hand of the man who handed him the trophy and looked at the prize with disgust.
“I just wanted to win the World Cup,” said Messi, 27, whose team had just lost to Germany 0-1. “This award means nothing to me now.”
The World Cup means many things to many people. It gave rise to the legend of U.S. soccer goalie Tim Howard. It spurred Uruguay’s Luis Suarez to bare his mighty incisors. It drove several Chinese, awash in gambling debt, to suicide. But for the nation of Argentina, which experienced riots Sunday night, and Messi, who is compared daily to Argentine legend Diego Maradona, it now means one thing: disappointment.
It is impossible to separate politics from soccer. A nation’s hopes and aspirations sometimes seem to rest on the performance of its team. Few countries needed a big victory like Argentina.
Motorcycle bandits called motochorros pervade its cities. Reported lynchings and mob justice haunt capital Buenos Aires. The value of Argentina’s peso collapsed earlier this year, losing 20 percent of its value, and analysts feared the country was tumbling toward another economic meltdown.
“Argentina’s problems are considerably more serious than those of emerging countries such as Turkey, Brazil and South Africa,” a Washington Post editorial said earlier this year, lambasting its government for “never learning from its mistakes … the same mistakes that have produced previous busts: uncontrolled government spending, heavy taxes on exports coupled with strict controls on imports and disincentives to foreign investors.”
So with its economy on shaky ground, Argentina turns to its national pastime of soccer — and its love-hate relationship with Messi.
Messi’s greatness is undisputed, even preternatural. Playing for Spain’s F.C. Barcelona, which he led to national and international titles, he scored 91 goals in 69 games in 2012. FIFA has named Messi, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall, the best player in the world in four of the last five years. His gifts combine speed and intuition, doggedness and finesse. Put simply: he scores. All the time.
But to some in Argentina, Messi was never Argentine enough. Never “felt” the jersey enough. Was never enough like free-wheeling and snarling Maradona, who won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina, accomplishing something Messi has not.
Messi was born in the town of Rosario, which also gave birth to Che Guevara, about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. His father worked at a steel plant outside town. As a boy he was gifted athletically, but ill. He was diagnosed with a growth-hormone deficiency that required daily injections, and no local team would pay for his $900-per-month treatment. So on Dec. 14, 2000, when Messi was 13, he met with a Barcelona team official. The official soon signed him — to a contract written on a paper napkin.
His defection rankled critics. A New York Times reporter recently spent time in Rosario and wrote: “I heard versions of this critique nearly everywhere I went, from cabdrivers to coaches to professional commentators: Messi left Argentina too soon; he didn’t come up through the club ranks and play for a first-division side in Argentina, as other heroes like Diego Mardona and Carlos Tevez have done; he hasn’t sung along with the national anthem before games; he has no passion, no personality; he doesn’t ‘feel the shirt’ of the national team the way the other players do.”
Messi, however, could never shake his nationality. A dual citizen, he could have played for Spain’s World Cup squad. But he didn’t. He chose Argentina. His style of play was Argentine, he said, not Spanish. “Despite the fact that I have grown [in Spain] and learned a lot in Spain, I never changed the way I play, the way I have done since I was very small,” he once said.
This World Cup was Messi’s chance — not only to prove that he’s Argentine once and for all, but to surpass Maradona. For most of the tournament, it seemed as though he would accomplish both. The captain of his team, Messi delivered a late winner against Iran and made a critical pass to help secure a victory over Switzerland. His focus slowly won over fans.
“We had the feeling that his emotions, his feelings, were for Spain,” one fan told the New York Times. “But without a doubt, he is Argentine. We love him. He’s playing with his heart.”
Yet it wasn’t enough. With time all but expired and Germany leading 1-0, Messi had one more chance: a free kick. He stepped up to the ball and let fly. It wasn’t even close. Arcing past the goal, the ball bounced out of the camera’s frame, taking with it the hopes of the country.