Argentina star Lionel Messi has been a talisman for his team as they marched to qualification for the 2014 World Cup. With two games remaining in the South America competition, and thanks in part to 10 goals from La Pulga, the Albiceleste have booked their place in Brazil with ease.
Few will feel greater joy than the Barcelona phenomenon, who for years battled with allegations that the national team was not his priority.
The unkind suggestion, which circulated Buenos Aires in 2009 when Messi pulled out of a friendly against the Catalan national team, that he would feel happier playing for Argentina's opponents is just an example of the criticism that surrounded him in recent years. Calling the world's best player an underachiever or failure was clearly unjustified, but successive Argentine coaches failed to get the best out of their gem.
As a point of comparison, under Alfio Basile and Diego Maradona in the 2010 qualifying phase, Lio hit the net four times. In that year's World Cup and the 2011 Copa America, the star went home both times at the quarter-final stage without troubling the scorers.
His teamwork and approach play was as diligent as ever, but the prodigious conversion rate he enjoyed in Camp Nou vanished once pulling on the blue and white of his nation. That is, until Alejandro Sabella took over.
The ex-Estudiantes coach, unlike the tactical kamikaze duo of Maradona and Sergio Batista's Barcelona-lite pretensions, knew how Argentina could play and win. First and foremost, if Messi was marked by three men every time Argentina took possession, what was the sense in using him as a conventional playmaker?
The key was fast breaks, leaving Messi further upfield and using the likes of Fernando Gago, Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero to make the difference on the counter. This rapid shift from the back leaves defences unorganised and ripe for the Rosario native's unworldly talents on the ball.
Messi's 10 goals, plus a further nine for centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain and five for Aguero, leave in stark evidence the success of Sabella's tactics. The No. 10. is playing with a freedom and confidence he has never experienced before in the Seleccion, and it is helping him reproduce his very best Barcelona form in Argentine colours.
The captaincy, bestowed on Messi by Sabella in almost his first official duty as Argentina coach back in 2011, has also been key to his upsurge in form. It is almost impossible to find a better candidate to lead a team than the painfully humble superstar, as he demonstrated after hitting a hat-trick against Brazil last year, telling FIFA.com:
I don’t know what’s changed. The good thing is that we’re on a roll now: we’re winning games and growing as a team. We’re finding our way. On a personal level, I always try to do things the same way as with Barcelona. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Today I feel very happy.
Something definitely has changed. Nineteen of the 37 goals Messi has scored for Argentina, putting him only behind Gabriel Batistuta in the all-time list, have come under the direction of Sabella. In the last 24 months, the star has hit the net more times on international duty than in the five years that preceded the coach's appointment. Such improvements do not happen by fluke.
Argentine Football Association
Messi's reinvention in the Albiceleste is a product of the faith held in him by Sabella. But more than that his awareness that it was not necessary to recreate the conditions he enjoys at Barcelona to get the best out of him (if such a thing were even possible at international level) but re-devise Argentine tactics to move in a new direction, one which feeds the instincts and hunger of the Ballon d'Or holder.
It is testament too, to the maturity of the 26-year-old star, who took the captain's armband and made it his own, growing into the role and providing an example for all of his teammates.
With qualification in the bag, preparations can start in earnest for Brazil and the challenge Argentina face in attempting their first World Cup win in 28 years. If Messi can spearhead that bid for the title, he will be forgiven a wry laugh at those who were prepared to sell him off to Catalunya in those dark, forgotten days past.