Alejandro Panfil @AlePanfil
Once upon a time, Lionel Messi was happy in Barcelona, where he had a solid structure to score countless goals, win numerous matches and raise many trophies. Meanwhile, when he had to travel half way across the planet to wear the Argentinean national jersey, he was doomed to face a chaotic organization and excessive critics about his performance and his lack of patriotism when it came to singing the national anthem. Absurdly harassed by public opinion, demanding him to win a World Cup to achieve the status of Diego Armando Maradona, Leo has silently bared the burden. He kept on coming.
2020 will forever be a year we will all want to forget, especially FC Barcelona. Moreover, many things have changed for Lio Messi. After three seasons being catastrophically eliminated from the Champions League (by Juventus, Roma and Liverpool), Bayern Munich thrashing Barcelona 8-2 in quarterfinals this last season, confirmed that the club was in freefall and had hit the bottom. What happened after, including burofax and termination clause debate and Messi wanting to leave and chairman Bartomeu preventing the soccer star from carrying out his will, is vox populi.
Everything indicates that right now Messi is silently baring FC Barcelona. The new season has started and the team is counting on a new coach -Ronald Koeman- to lead the way. He has let go many players from the old line up but he still has the best player of the Spanish League at hand. Until now, Barcelona played three La Liga matches and got seven points –the team has defeated Villarreal and Celta and tied with Sevilla and still needs to recover two games – which means that the club is in the fifth position and far behind Real Madrid who is, again, at the top. That being said, Barcelona is only three points behind the Merengues and has very good chances of catching up.
Due to the Covid-19, the qualifications to Qatar 2022 were delayed until this October, so Messi started almost simultaneously the two, very different, competitions: The Spanish League and the road to his fifth and last World Cup. And the later meant he was able to travel to South America and enjoy breathing a different kind of air. To be fair, the Argentina National Team is not in its best shape and has not won a WC title for the last 34 years, or any other title for 27 years (its last Copa America was in 1993). Though the Albiceleste was really close to raising the golden World Cup in Brazil in 2014, it had a mediocre performance in Russia 2018.
But despite this “recent” past, the squad is going through a reinvention process with its new coach, Lionel Scaloni, and new younger players such as Lautaro Martinez, Exequiel Palacios and Lucas Ocampo. And this transformation atmosphere seems to suit Messi, who, at 33 years old, is much more comfortable in his role as a more experienced player who can provide his teammates with guidance and support, in and out of the field.
Argentina has a lot to work on if the team wants to sit again at the table of the most powerful national teams in the world, who are mostly Europeans. We mustn’t forget that the last four World Cups were won by Italy, Spain, Germany and France, making their continent a powerful ruler in the soccer fields all over the world.
Nevertheless, the Argentineans are off to a good start, having won their first two matches: home 1-0 against Equator and away 2-1 against Bolivia in the 3.640 altitude. As a result, the team is sharing the top with Brazil, in one of the most difficult Qualifications in the world. These 6 points out of 6 may very well represent a cornerstone to refund the team’s unity and performance that may encourage them to pursue better results in the international context.
The times when Messi was criticized because he didn’t play in his national team as well as he did in wonderful Barcelona, seem distant nowadays. The Argentinean fans are experiencing a renewed romance with their hero and he is protected both by the coaching crew and the leaders of the Argentinean Football Association (AFA). They have all finally realized that Messi was not to blame for the decades of failure and that, with eyes set on the horizon, the team needs a long-term project that includes local changes to fit international standards and achieve success. Thus, there no longer seems to be an obligation to win the World Cup but a really intense desire which replaces pressure for passion.
As a result, Lionel Messi gives the impression to feel more at home than ever coming back to the country where he was born, even if it is only for a few hours. This creates a huge contrast with the situation in Spain where he was obligated to stay and be the winning card every weekend. In numbers, this is the scenario: Messi played 3 games for Barcelona and 2 for the Argentina national team and just scored one of the 8 goals of Barça (the 12.5 %) whilst he scored 1 of the 3 of the Albiceleste (the 33, 3%).
But beyond the numbers, Messi showed happiness and compromise during this first window of World Cup Qualifiers with his national team while, in Barcelona, the situation is still a bitter pill to swallow. So, is Messi finally happier with Argentina than Barcelona?