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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