Messi’s likely last World Cup inspires hope in a beleaguered Argentina

A mural of Argentine soccer great Lionel Messi looms over Rosario, his birthplace. (Anita Pouchard Serra for The Washington Post)

ROSARIO, Argentina — It’s match day at Abanderado Grandoli, a small, working-class soccer club here in Argentina’s third-largest city. Local families pay $1 a month so their 4-year-old sons can play seven-a-side fútbol — a first step, many hope, toward a professional career in the national obsession.

In the small locker room hangs a poster of a child who passed through the club three decades ago — inspiration for small boys with big dreams. His name is Lionel Messi.

“Watching Messi play at that age was, simply put, unforgettable,” said club president David Treves, now 45. “How could you forget? He was a tiny, introverted 4-year-old doing back then what the world saw decades later.” The goalkeeper would hand Messi the ball, he said, and the child would dribble through the opposing team until he scored.

“The word is fantastic,” Treves said. “It was absolutely fantastic.”

Now fans here are looking forward to what probably will be a final opportunity to watch one of history’s greatest players in international play as Messi, now 35, takes the field next week for what’s expected to be his final World Cup. Argentina begins group stage play against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Qatar.

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For Argentines, the kickoff can’t come soon enough. This South American nation of 46 million has been buffeted by bad news: inflation estimated this year at 100 percent, an assassination attempt in September on polarizing Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the need to restructure the world’s largest International Monetary Fund bailout to avoid default. Fernández de Kirchner, a former president, and other politicians are accused in long-running corruption scandals. Surveys of ordinary Argentines convey a staggering sense of pessimism.

Bettors are laying 11-2 odds of a cup win for the Albiceleste (the national team’s nickname is a poetic rendering of the alabaster white and sky blue of the flag and jersey), according to the latest numbers from Caesars Sportsbook. That’s second only to neighbor and archrival Brazil.

“The World Cup is an opportunity to recover enthusiasm in a country that is enormously frustrated and filled with an overwhelming feeling of failure,” said José Abadi, a psychiatrist in Buenos Aires. “It’s a chance of winning for once and attaining global recognition for how good our soccer is rather than for how much money we owe.”

A national fever

For one month every four years, Argentina becomes a different country. A national fever grips Argentines, and political divisions fade as Buenos Aires is draped in the national colors. During games, streets empty, shops close their doors, and factories go silent. Students and teachers gather around television screens.

“If a match falls within class hours, schools have to broadcast it,” Argentine Education Minister Jaime Perczyk told The Washington Post. If they didn’t, he says, teenagers would skip classes altogether.

“Argentine schools have always shown the games,” he said. “They’ve done it before and will continue to do so. It is a piece of Argentine culture, and we must also take advantage of this to enrich the pedagogical proposition.”

Cristian Pereyra, 48, works in a factory that produces shock absorbers and dampers. Managers set up a television so the 500 employees don’t miss the game. “Whenever Argentina plays, the whole factory is brought to a halt,” he said. “Some do not like soccer, but that’s just the way it is.”

Soccermania came early this year because of a shortage of figuritas, the baseball-card-like stickers collected by young and old at World Cup time — leading the government to step in to streamline production.

Messi was highly touted from a young age, Grandoli Coach Marcos Almada says — at the time, he was spoken of as the “new Diego Maradona.” But he wasn’t always so beloved.

The Church of Maradona

Maradona led Argentina to its second and most recent World Cup title, over Germany in 1986. The smaller-than-average, larger-than-life footballer, who with Brazil’s Pelé was named FIFA’s Player of the 20th Century, has inspired a cult following — literally.

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At Club Servando Bayo, a small establishment in Rosario, a group of roughly 150 has assembled. It’s the eve of Oct. 30, Maradona’s birthday. For the members of the Church of Maradona, the year is 62 A.D.

After Diego.

In 1998, a dozen years after Maradona’s notorious “Hand of God” goal helped bring the Cup home, a group of fanatics decided to worship their idol perpetually. They came up with Ten Commandments — “Thou shalt love football above all things”; “Thou shalt declare unconditional love for Diego” — scriptures and poetry, even a baptism rite: Initiates emulate the uncalled hand ball goal that put Argentina up 1-0 against England in the 1986 quarterfinals.

Since their hero died in 2020, the congregation has grown. “Without Diego, our love for him became much deeper,” said Hernán Amez, a church founder. On Maradonian Christmas, they display paintings of his biggest goals and play video highlights from his career.

As midnight approaches, the fanatics invoke his parents. “In the name of Doña Tota and Don Diego,” they chant.

Maradona is to some extent a “totemic father” for Argentines, said Abadi, the psychiatrist. The adoration around the star, whose large personality drew extreme reactions beyond the soccer pitch, has complicated Messi’s connection with fans.

“As a successor, Messi was not only loved but also criticized,” he said. “It must not be the case that he pretends to fill the role of the national hero.”

Bitter comparisons

Messi is an accomplished star in Europe, where he has played for Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain and won 11 club championships and four UEFA Champions League titles. He has won the Ballon d’Or — the Golden Ball, awarded each year to the men’s soccer player judged the world’s best — a record seven times, most recently in 2021.

But national titles have largely eluded him. He won Olympic gold with Argentina in Beijing in 2008. But during his tenure, the national team lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany and the Copa América final three times.

“The national team is over for me,” he said after a shootout loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa América final. “I tried so hard; triumphing [with Argentina] is what I wanted most, but it is simply impossible. I can’t win.”

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For Argentines, Messi’s struggles in international play drew bitter comparisons with Maradona’s successes. Still, his retirement shattered fans. His dismay caused some critics to warm to him. He did finally win the Copa América in 2021.

“Those comparisons were so silly,” said Pereyra, the factory worker. “We should be proud that both he and Maradona are Argentines.”

High hopes

In Rosario’s Barrio La Bajada, a labyrinthine complex of narrow streets and alleys, Messi’s childhood home has become a sanctuary. The two-story concrete house is still unpainted, but virtually everything around it is decorated in his honor: Sidewalks and light posts are painted white and blue, and neighbors’ walls and doorways are emblazoned with murals of the star.

Hopes here for a third World Cup title — and a first for Messi — are high.

“In the twilight of his career, Messi arrives in Qatar as one of the top players in the world,” said Ezequiel Fernández Moores, an Argentine sports journalist. “I never saw Messi like this in the national team, personally and football-wise. He is more relaxed and mature, the team’s natural leader.”

Minutes after midnight at the Church of Maradona, Laura Gómez and Gabriel Rodríguez plan to take their wedding vows. A couple for 23 years, they have come from Buenos Aires to get married.

“This is a token of love for him,” Gómez said. “It is great to have a place to worship Diego. We miss him every game, and now that the World Cup is coming, even more.”

She trusts that Maradona will be with Messi and Argentina during the tournament.

“Diego’s legacy is embedded in Messi’s heart,” she said. “Whenever I gaze at the stars, I say to myself. ‘Diego, please give us a hand in Qatar!’”

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