In Bed With Messi

Lionel Messi offers everything a soccer fan could want. So why don't his native Argentines seem to want it?
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Last week Lionel Messi scored a hat trick for Argentina in their 3-1 friendly win over Switzerland. It was his first for the national team in 68 appearances, a fact evident in the Barcelona star’s relieved reaction to his performance. “I had been waiting for a long time for this moment because on a lot of occasions things didn’t work out for me. Now, things have worked out, the team won and we did well. It’s special because it happened with the national team.”

Those three goals brought his international total to 22, a mere 12 goals short of Diego Maradona’s tally. Yet the narrative that Messi saves his best for Barcelona and, consequently, lacks the confidence of his countrymen, remains enduring. The fixation on Messi’s strained relationship with his native Argentina is most recently evidenced in Time International’s recent cover story and interview with Messi, which reminds readers that, despite his unassailable greatness, the question remains: “why won’t his countrymen warm to him?”

It boggles the mind that even a noisy minority could carp about Messi’s performances for Argentina. At Messi’s current age of 24, Maradona had won only the U-20 World Cup at the international level, an achievement Messi equaled in 2005, before adding an Olympic gold medal three years later. Unlike Maradona, Messi was included in Argentina’s World Cup squad when he was still in his teens, delighting Argentine fans with a goal and an assist in Argentina’s 5-0 victory over Serbia and Montenegro at Germany 2006. His muscular performances in the Olympics in particular bespoke a mature footballer who, in a sense, was outgrowing his injury-prone youth. Indeed, his pinballing runs and obsessive drive towards goal showed that the happy hobbit was made of some rough stuff.

Nevertheless, Messi bore the brunt of criticism in the wake of Argentina’s disappointing showings at World Cup 2010 and last summer’s Copa America. It seems as if the early promise of a Messi-led Albiceleste has given way to negativity colored by the suspicion that Messi is insufficiently nationalistic to guide Argentina to victory in a meaningful tournament. Those who defended him made it a point to insist that he is nothing if not a patriot. He sings the national anthem in his heart if not with his voice, his father told the press. He could have played for Spain, but refused. Huge yerba mate fan, etc.

The standard interpretation is that Messi didn’t stay in Argentina long enough to develop ties to one of its more well supported clubs. As a child, Messi signed with Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, but the cash-strapped club’s inability to pay for Messi’s growth hormone medication brought him to Barcelona at the age of twelve. Meanwhile, River Plate and Boca’s past stars are not only feted for eternity, but also in a sense can do no wrong. Tim Vickery often uses the term “constituency” to describe the bond between Argentine supporters and their players. In this partisan world of club fandom, Boca supporters don’t think of Carlos Tevez’s prima donna behavior at Manchester City as negligent or shameful, but rather enigmatic, mischievous, or, at worst, fickle. They’d be happy to have him back. Due to his history, Messi neither commands the unconditional backing of any such fan base nor the hate of their rivals.

His perceived status as an interloper is further magnified by parochialism and anti-imperial sentiment, which continues to resonate in countries like Argentina, where the measure of an athlete’s popularity can boil down to his or her alleged authenticy and loyalty to the nation. The outsized expectation that Messi must win a World Cup (on his own, if possible) to be considered Maradona’s equal is less a logical assessment of his legacy than a nativist yearning for national triumph. In this context, Maradona’s triumph in 1986 is imagined in Argentina as an act of anti-imperial rebellion as much as (if not more than) it is taken to be an act of sporting heroics. Globalization, the Washington Consensus model of economic development, and the attendant disasters in places like Argentina reawaken a national longing for heroes and rebels who, like Maradona, buck this trend from the defiant fiber of their being. This is encapsulated in Emir Kusturica’s self-indulgent documentary on Maradona, in which the Argentine waltzes past cartoon figures of Thatcher, Blair, Reagan, Elizabeth II, and George W. Bush on his way to scoring against England in 1986. In contrast, if one of neoliberal global capitalism’s demands is to become cosmopolitan or perish, then Messi’s response seems to be an undiscerning “Okay.” While he seems immune to the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends trappings of global celebrity and the appeal of a full-blown Beckham branding regime, Messi’s easygoing demeanor and company-man amenability have been effortlessly exploited for consumption.

To wit, Messi has recently signed with EA Sports and is now their cover boy for their reconstituted FIFA Street series. Beyond his marketing chops, it seems like a natural fit. Given his close control, tight turning radius, and quickness over ten yards, Messi’s particular skill set is perfectly designed for five-a-side cage matches or futsal court games. At the same time, the decadent flicks and tricks, the trash talk, and the terribly cool graffiti patina of urban blight—the strenuous street-ness of the whole enterprise—are out of synch with Messi’s persona. There was a time when Messi could be found frolicking in Barca's nightclubs with Ronaldinho and Deco under the lax Rijkaard regime—a pattern terminated as soon as Pep Guardiola took over as manager, selling both Ronaldinho and Deco and telling Messi that his career more or less depended upon his temperance. Ever since, Messi has acted the choirboy, to the point where selling him as a tarted-up street footballer seems strained in its artificiality even for a videogame. While selling Messi off as an avatar for the game itself is logical and sensible from a promotional angle, his good boy reputation clashes with the style of the street. (Wayne Rooney, with his taste for working girls and the chav lifestyle writ large, seems the far better choice.)

Ironically, the qualities that make Messi such a likable character to a global audience—his simplicity and geeky charm—come across as aloofness in Argentina and leave many feeling indifferent towards him. Maradona’s resolute irresponsibility and stamina for the untoward seem to endear him to his compatriots, who empathize with his imperfections and admire his guile. The passion surrounding Maradona’s celebrity has as much to do with his persona as it does with the way he played. And the way he played was a reflection of his persona—namely that of the pibe. The pibe (translated literally as “boy” or “kid”) as the sociologist Eduardo Archetti explains in a 1997 article in a collected volume on the cultural meaning of Maradona, is the apotheosis of footballing genius to Argentines. In their ideal form, pibes are physically runty and scruffy, boundlessly clever, fantastic dribblers, and adolescent in attitude. They are exemplars of Argentina’s native brand of soccer—la nuestra—in their sometimes reckless commitment to individual skill and unpredictability, which they hone on the bumpy dirt pitches of urban slums known as potreros, a safe distance from the adult gaze and its determination to discipline through coaching. While the mythical idea of the pibe predates Maradona, he has come to define it in its essence, not least of all in his bleating histrionics and destructiveness. Archetti writes, “In the case of a pibe, a lot of disorder is expected. Chaotic behavior is the norm. There is a tendency to disregard boundaries, to play games even in private life (life is experienced as a permanent game or gamble, if necessary); additionally, there is a capacity to recompense, penalize or forgive others in an exaggerated way; to convey arbitrary judgments and choices; to display stupid and irrational heroism, and a capacity to ‘die’ (by being imprisoned, a drug-addict or an alcoholic) and to be resurrected; and a special talent in critical games to make the unexpected move, ensuring victory for the team.”

In his capacity for individual genius on the pitch, Messi has the traits of a pibe. Like Maradona before him, Messi is a master of the gambetta, the peculiarly Argentine brand of on-the-ball feints and dribbling technique. Indeed, that Getafe goal, his small stature, and his never-ending precociousness confirmed to many that he was playing Maradona’s game. In his essay on Messi in his book Soccer Men, Simon Kuper argues as much, lyrically proclaiming, “the overwhelming sensation when you watch Messi is still: he’s a child. …When Messi receives a ball and doesn’t bother touching it, but just sets off running and lets it trot alongside him, he looks like a boy out with his pet dog.” And yet, as a nationalist ideal, Messi lacks a certain archetypical pibe-ness that is expected of Argentina’s preeminent sporting heroes. His reputation as a model professional precedes him. He plays by the rules and does his trainers and manager proud. He plays as part of the team as much as he plays for it. He has a tattoo, but it’s of his mother. He stays inside and plays videogames on his time off—even at sex parties, it would seem. No one will ever name a blog “In Bed With Messi.”

The Barca way, modeled on a Dutch system introduced by Cruyff and Rinus Michels and perfected by Guardiola, has done more than refine Messi’s character. It has tactically polished him and his colleagues to the extent that the soccer they are schooled in spites the fantasy and individual artistry of the potrero in favor of the intelligent exploitation of space, diligent pressing, and positional interchange. Archetti reminds us that when Maradona was emerging as a young talent in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Dutch total football and the German defensive organization of Franz Beckenbauer were the dominant tactical trends in world soccer. While even if the most romantic of Argentine managers, César Luis Menotti, sought to blend fantasy with tactical orderliness, the dominant European soccer style and its fetishization of the system at the expense of the individual was considered slightly bloodless, cold, and anathema to Argentina’s local style. Despite its seemingly broad appeal as an attractive brand of soccer, in Argentina total football is somewhat disparagingly referred to as la naranja mechanica—the orange machine. Cruyff’s obvious talents and brainy approach to the game were respected there, but only begrudgingly, and with the proviso that his greatest gift was his ability to make the entire team play as a conductor rather than a soloist. Maradona, though, was a soloist, and reasonable or not, the notion that he singlehandedly won titles for the workmanlike Argentina and Napoli remains a social fact in Argentina, where the perception is that he destroyed the hegemony of machine football on his way to pimp-slapping British naval and imperial power in retribution for the Falklands war.

The thing is, Messi’s game has developed in ways that seem to necessitate the kind of tactical changes wrought by his time spent in Barcelona. Ever since Guardiola moved him to a more central position from the right wing in 2009, his play has simplified as his influence has amplified. Early in his career he was perpetually in motion, a blur in an oversized jersey tormenting defenders with frenetic movement and counterintuitive cutbacks. Now, however, there is more often than not a simple symmetry and economy to his movement that borders on predictable. His movement and pass for Iniesta’s first in the second leg of the Super Copa was very similar to Villa’s second in the first league Clasico last season. Some of his best moments in the past two seasons have been behind a telling pass—those angled reverse balls he rolls through flattened back fours that, like the incessant drip of Chinese water torture, ultimately wears down resistance. David Silva, a Spaniard, is making a career out these passes with Manchester City. Even Messi’s maze-y dribbles have become more notable for the passing interchanges that precede the finishes than for the runs themselves. That isn’t to say that he has lost the capacity for jaw-dropping moments of solo genius to which we have become so accustomed. The skill remains. But Pep’s Messi—Messi 2.0—is, as Ray Hudson says, the flux capacitor in the DeLorean, the most important node in a beautiful and perfect machine. In this sense, he has become the perfect exponent of Dutch-cum-Spanish football.

So why won’t his countrymen warm to him? I sometimes wonder if Argentines latently resent the efforts to build the national team around Messi, as if the whole thing, quite literally, smacks of going Dutch—of grafting Barcelona, Spain, Ajax, and Holland onto Argentina. If only Xavi and Iniesta were Argentine—so goes wishful thinking. There is even some talk of appointing Guardiola manager. In theory, the idea seems practical: build a user-friendly system around Messi and he can make all the parts work. But the project, at its very core, is anti-pibe. It defiles the fantasy that there is an Argentine boy out there who can bring the world to heel without the aid of tactical chalkboards, Opta fetishists, or even, quaintly, the help of his teammates.

Messi is a monument to two of modern soccer’s greatest attacking traditions: Argentina’s la nuestra and Dutch total football (one might add Spain’s tiki taka). Tim Vickery argues that this eclecticism—a perfect blend of the best of Europe and South America—is what makes Messi such a special and modern talent. While in practice there is no reason to see this as anything but a virtue considering that talented players always underwrite the best systems, soccer is a cultural enterprise as well as a sporting one. And if we view this mixing of traditions in dialectical rather than harmonic terms, we can begin to understand his complicated relationship with his native Argentina. While in many ways his skill is a relic of his youth spent on the rutty pitches of Argentina, his tactical development at Barcelona and the corresponding notion that he needs the support of both that system and players schooled in that system to succeed at the international level almost culturally repudiates what should make him uniquely Argentine. To the extent that these soccer traditions represent ideal types, they are at ideological crosscurrents. Which leaves Messi, at least in terms of soccer culture, a man without a country.


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Comments

Ah, that wasn't a reply to Almost Not Really, but to the main post. Sorry!

Do you have any sense of where DiStefano ranks with Argentines? I think he started at River Plate but became most well know for his time at Real Madrid. Also, he was capped more times for Spain than Argentina. On the surface there seems to be some parallels with him & Messi.

IBWM is one of my favorite sites. "In Bed With Meazza" might be a good subject too.

Eh, I don't know. As an Argentine myself, I think the thesis proposed here is a tad overblown. Obviously, when you're trying to articulate a grand argument about what a NATION thinks of an INDIVIDUAL, you're going to have to generalize. It comes with the territory. I have no doubt that the writer of this piece - and, hopefully, the readers - understand that not *every* Argentine believes what this articles says they believe. Not even most. Of course, I don't have statistical data to back me up here. I didn't go out and interview my countrymen. You'll have to forgive me there. But, based on my own observation, and on the fact that I'm an Argentine myself, I have to point out a few things.

Never have I heard anything negative from an Argentine about the famous "Clockwork Orange" team from the 70s. This is the first time I read or hear of the "Clockwork Orange" tag as being "somewhat disparaging". I thought it was a convenient contemporary movie reference, evoking the orange Dutch jerseys as well their crisp, circulatory, complex, mechanical team architecture. Maybe I missed something? Though, of course, I haven't talked to every Argentine out there, nor read everything penned by an Argentine, and I wasn't alive during 1978. Then again, at that time, Argentina was being ruled by an "orderly" Military Junta with a machine of its own, one for killing. So I don't know what Argentines had to gain, outside of delusion, from pretending the cold machine wasn't the one operating right at home. It's possible they tried, though. The truth always hurts.

It should also be emphasized that, the rambunctiousness of Maradona notwithstanding, the team that won the 1986 World Cup was highly tactical and chalkboardish. In the popular Argentine imagination, that team is famous for two things: rowdy and spectacular Maradona, and the obsessive, defensive, crazily detail-oriented coach Carlos Bilardo. Stories of Bilardo waking players up at two in the morning to clue them in on his latest tactical epiphanies are repeated with glee and admiration. All Argentine national coaches after Bilardo are, it seems, judged on the number of VHS videos (now DVDs, I guess) they take to the World Cup for research and tactical refinement. When dear Pekerman decided to not practice penalty kicks for his upcoming 2006 match against Germany - "because we won't get to that stage", he said, infamously - he was justly derided for his oversight. That 1986 team combined the most ruthlessly defensive, ugly chalkboard soccer with the aesthetic fantasias of unbounded individualism. And that's why it won the Cup, I guess. (I will concede that Bilardo's chalkboard, unlike other tactical chalkboards, was probably smeared in blood from all the harsh defense he drew in, which I guess removes some of the coldness from his intellectual approach, as does the fact that he was crazy, which makes him an intellectual we can warm up to).

Other points of note (sorry this reply is so long). I sincerely doubt parochialism and illogical club fandom are Argentine inventions, or that we're currently monopolizing the practice. I think such feelings are endemic in soccer, in all nations. In the case of Argentina, you have certain dynamics, a split between the club players who "stay home" and those who "leave for Europe", exacerbated by the fact that Argentines feel a bit "left out" and irreparably peripheral at the southernmost tip of the Southern Hemisphere. Furthermore, club teams in Argentina have to perform financial tango moves just to keep their best players from leaving to wealthier shores. So it seems understandable that many Argentines, then, are a bit protective of what is "national" and what is "foreign" in soccer, and brew a kind of resentment towards those "leaked" players who run to Europe, while those who stay home or at least maintain a strong symbolic bond with their local club (even if they don't do much to strengthen it once they emigrate) are seen with kinder eyes. I don't think this is an Argentine phenomenon, though perhaps it's more visible here because of the distance between Argentina and Europe and the frequency of Argentine departures from the local league, which intensifies the trauma. Fans are forced to watch, helplessly, as their club teams are depleted of all their stars, over and over again, every single year. So they get a bit defensive about the whole matter of Argentine players going to Europe or, worse yet in the case of Messi, not even playing professionally for an Argentine team.

Yeah, it's not reasonable. Yeah, players are doing their job. They should be able to go wherever they want without people questioning their nationality. But, you know. This is soccer fandom. It's not known to be reasonable, I don't think. It's inherently emotional, since most of it is based on an abstract sense of belonging. I root for a team with a white shirt and a red stripe because, uh, my dad rooted for it. The team defines me and yet... it's a bunch of strangers kicking a ball in a stadium I barely have time to go to. I love these strangers because they get paid a salary, so they kick a ball in favor of my team. Some of these strangers actually share my passion for the white shirt and the red stripe, but most are "mercenaries," a term that makes no sense in this context but is usually employed to refer to men doing their job kicking a ball around a pitch. I can't even claim neighborhood allegiance. I never lived in the neighborhood where my team's stadium resides. I don't even live close. I probably live closer to my team's rival's stadium. It's all very irrational, but I tune in weekly and scream at the TV.

As for Maradona. I think a good swath of the Argentine populace hates him now. Not only for his atrocious coaching, but because he runs at the mouth so much. Don't underestimate how tired we all are of his ranting. Still, the shrill reproves he gets from foreign media screams of cultural typecasting. There's this paternalistic tone about it. "Oh, Maradona. Shut up. Be quiet. Don't make a mess. Don't be so Argentine". It seems Maradona can't open his trap without becoming a symbol for Argentineness. The Spanish sports media seems to thrive on this generalizing tactic. "Maradona is Argentina", they say, always negatively. I don't doubt that he mirrors a part of our national myth, that he's a prototype for a certain kind of scruffy Argentine, like Che. But he's just a bloated media personality. Let's not overdo his significance. He can reveal something about the national character, but the argument has been beaten to death by now. It seems that, if there's a famous Argentine like Maradona, he's immediately "a symbol of Argentina," while other, less histrionic Argentine personalities - even in sports, I don't know, Ginobili, Nalbandian, or in the arts, in literature, in the sciences - are either seen as exceptions or as "good Argentines," because they're not bothersome. Maradona is unseemly, I agree. But he can't just be an individual? He embraces an epic view of himself, yeah, but why does the media have to play along, always, and usually at the expense of a whole (and very complicated) nation? There's a lot of crisscrossing myths and foundation stories about Argentina, lots of narratives being flung about from left to right, and back again... Maradona is one of these. I basically find myself, when I read articles like these, on a strange juncture. On the one hand, I can't stand Maradona. I think he's immensely annoying. But on the other, I see the rest of the world looking down at him, as an exemplar of Argentina, and it feels like other nations wagging their fingers, telling us to shut up and play nice. I'm not overtly nationalistic and chauvinistic about these things - I can't be, I was born in Spain and I spent the greater part of my life in the United States - but this paternalistic (and generalizing, stereotyping) attitude just basically makes want to stand besides Maradona and tell the rest of the world to "suck it," which is very Maradonaesque, yeah.

I guess the fact that this reply is so damn long suggests that the article in question wounded me somewhere, hit the mark, so to speak. But I just tend to write a lot in general, on whatever subject, and the article in question is similarly long and put forth a lot of different arguments, so just tackling each one separately means I ran on at the mouth myself (irony!). It should be clear - but I emphasize it anyways - that parts of this reply aren't necessarily directed at this article, specifically, but mean to speak of a larger trend of articles positing Maradona as an icon of Argentineness, and always in a negative light. Which is not to say some Argentines don't talk of Maradona as one such symbol positively ("he's so clever, he's so anti-establishment," etc.) or that Maradona, as a social construction, can't be used in arguments about Argentine culture (that would be unfair and deluded). I just wanted to add a different angle on the subject, and suggest the picture is slightly more complicated. I hope the length of the reply doesn't negatively influence anyone's perception of it, but I guess I can't help that.