Despite breaking a goals record that stood for 40 years, Messi would probably trade it for just the dozen he scored for Argentina in 2012.
“He’s more Catalan than Argentine”, “he’ll never be as good as Maradona”, “he doesn’t give it all for his country”, were just a few of the criticisms heard regularly on the streets and cafés of Buenos Aires prior to 2012.
The annoyance towards him in his home country grew proportionally to his achievements with Barcelona. Delirious fans in India, Japan, and Saudi Arabia mobbed the little genius in airports, only in Argentina did grumbles cover the praise.
Messi started 2012 with a hat trick in a 3-1 friendly victory over Switzerland. His critics said – it was a friendly – against Switzerland, no big deal. In June the rhetoric changed in a matter of days. After a long international break, Argentina played Ecuador in a 2014 Wolrd Cup qualifier where Messi led his team to a 4-0 victory with a goal and an assist. In the celebration of his goal he put end to weeks of speculation by putting the ball under his shirt. His message was clear: “I’m going to be a father, I’m Argentine, and so will my son be”. Even his fiercest critics couldn’t say much against that kind of performance.
Three days later, by the end of the “friendly” against Brazil in New Jersey, there were barely any critics left.
In the 29th minute Brazil were 1-0 up and outplaying Argentina. In three minutes Messi turned the game on its head, scoring two goals in two one-on-one situations with the Brazilian keeper. In a match well on the way to become a classic, Brazil equalized, then went in front, only to be pegged back by Argentina again. With the 85th minute up on the clock most people reasonably thought the match would end 3-3 in what would have been a slightly flattering result for Argentina.
Then Messi decided otherwise.
Receiving the ball on the halfway line, he skipped past a Brazilian defender in the blink of an eye, ran straight at the penalty box and unleashed an unstoppable shot from outside the box straight into the top corner. Cue mad celebrations from fans, players, subs and technical staff, more reminiscent of a World Cup match than a game with, on paper, no importance whatsoever. Friendly eh?
The year went on and Messi kept scoring for the Albiceleste, including goals against historic rivals Germany and Uruguay. By the end of 2012, his 12 goals with Argentina equaled Gabriel Batistuta’s all time record from 1998.
The final recognition to Messi’s explosion with Argentina came in another friendly against Brazil, in a game held in December where he didn’t even play. On a warm Wednesday night in Buenos Aires, the classic Argentina chant claiming Maradona’s superiority over Pele bounced of the stands of La Bombonera, Boca Junior’s mythical stadium. With one slight tweak to it. Yes you guessed it: Diego’s name was replaced by that of another tiny left-footed magician.