Why Lionel Messi Is Under Most Pressure for Argentina at the World Cup

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Why Lionel Messi Is Under Most Pressure for Argentina at the World Cup
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He may be adored in Argentina, but Lionel Messi will also be that country's most under-pressure player at the Brazil 2014 World Cup.

Football fans are notoriously fickle, and Argentineans are among the most passionate football supporters in the world, so a poor tournament from their star man could see them turning on him very quickly.

It took Messi several years to really earn the love of the general population in his homeland.

Having left to join the youth program at Barcelona when he was still a small boy, the Rosario native never played senior football in Argentina.

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He thus became known to many Argentineans only when he started to enjoy success in Spain and with the national youth teams.

The traditional route that top players travel down involves at least a couple of seasons in the Primera Division, where they garner a base of supporters from Boca Juniors, River Plate or whichever other club they happen to play for who will generally back them throughout their European and international careers.

Messi never went down that path, so he has no single strong club-based fan network in his mother country, though those loyal to Newell's Old Boys, his junior club, claim him as their own.

The popular narrative that he does not hold the affection of the Argentinean people is far from the truth, however, no matter what some journalists have gleaned from short visits to the country.

The excellent Wright Thompson wrote the following for ESPN after a trip to Argentina:

Just as we saw little of him in Rosario, many of its citizens see little of him in themselves.

Messi is as unknown to the people of his hometown as he is to me, sitting in my office watching his famous goal against Getafe over and over on youtube.

They don't understand how he plays, or how he acts, and they don't see a clean cause and effect, no X+Y=Z, that would explain either.

Jeff Himmelman of The New York Times was responsible for a similar piece. He wrote:

Last month, I spent time in Buenos Aires and in Rosario, Messi's hometown, where I heard versions of this critique nearly everywhere I went, from cabdrivers to coaches to professional commentators: Messi left Argentina too soon; he didn't come up through the club ranks and play for a first-division side in Argentina, as other heroes like Diego Maradona and Carlos Tevez have done; he hasn't sung along with the national anthem before games; he has no passion, no personality; he doesn't 'feel the shirt' of the national team the way other players do.

These high-quality writers no doubt experienced the things they described above and have every right to report on their impressions, but it should be pointed out that they each only spent a short time in Argentina and talked to a small sample of people.

The evidence against their claims is plentiful. The amount of Messi replica shirts on the streets far outnumbers any other player's, Messi billboards are prominent everywhere and the No. 10 is the star of most pre-tournament TV advertisements.

The companies sponsoring the Argentina team would hardly choose to focus on an unpopular player in order to promote their products.

A look at the website of the country's most popular sports daily, Ole, shows the following menu headings:

"Start, World Cup, National Team, Messi, First Division, Lower Divisions, International, NBA," etc.

What other athlete in the world demands an entire category dedicated just to himself on a sports website?

The clearest proof that Argentineans are enamored with their national team captain comes from the fans themselves when they attend international fixtures.

The chant of "Ole, ole, ole, ole, Messi, Messi" is heard repeatedly before, during and after any Albiceleste game on home soil.

In summary, then, Messi is an idol to most Argentina fans, but a cloud of doubt still hovers over him for a minority.

Leading the team to World Cup glory in Brazil would surely unite the whole nation behind him and elevate him to the level of Diego Maradona in terms of his historical legacy.

A disappointing individual performance from Messi, though, would see the naysayers come out in force, and the doubts about his place in the pantheon of the greats persist.

It's safe to say the pressure is on.

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