Copa America 2011: Why the Lionel Messi Backlash Is Senseless and Unwarranted
Despite playing at home and having arguably the greatest group of players in the world right now, Argentina unexpectedly struggled to advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa America.
They managed to secure the second place in their group with a win over Costa Rica and are now set to play World Cup semifinalists Uruguay in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
For some reason, the critics seem to have decided that Lionel Messi is to blame for all of Argentina's struggles.
The world's best player has failed to reproduce his Barcelona form so far in the tournament, but does it really make sense to blame him for Argentina's poor level of play?
Of course not. Football is a team sport.
No player in the history of the game has ever, or will ever, win matches, let alone tournaments, alone. The likes of Pelé and Diego Maradona, for instance, weren't exactly playing with a bunch of scrubs. While they were the brightest stars in their sides, there was quality and balance from top to bottom to give them a platform to shine.
Blaming Messi for Argentina's shortcomings as a team is just criticizing for the sake of it. The team as a whole has been playing much below the expected level, given their wealth of talent.
It's obvious that Argentina have some of the world's best players in their ranks, but they've just not been working well as a team; that's pretty much evident.
The midfield is devoid of any creativity (Cambiasso, Banega and Mascherano aren't exactly creators) and the talented attacking players usually try to solve the problems on their own, a strategy doomed to failure most of the time.
Should Messi be blamed for Argentina's struggles?
In the first two matches, Argentina barely created chances and was pretty lucky to even get draws. Batista changed the team against Costa Rica and the improvement was apparent. Still, it's doubtful whether that is the best tactic against a stronger side (like Uruguay).
The decision of playing Messi as an attacking midfielder behind Di Maria, Kun Aguero and Higuain worked; Messi had two assists and both Di Maria and Kun were on the scoresheet. But while Messi is the world's greatest creator, he's an even better scorer, and it seems a waste to play him in midfield.
It'd make a lot more sense to employ a creative midfielder like Pastore in that position and allow Messi to roam free in attack, just like at Barcelona. After all, maximizing the talents of his best player should be the main goal of the Argentinian manager; his team would only gain from it
The criticism of Messi seems even more senseless considering that, despite not being at his brilliant best, he's been one of Argentina's top players, arguably the second-best after Kun Aguero, in this competition. There are many reasons why Argentina haven't lived up to their potential. Messi isn't one of them, or at least, not one of the most flagrant ones.
Quite surprisingly, the most sensible contribution to this debate has come from Diego Maradona: "I want to defend Messi. He always plays, he loves the Argentine shirt—I can't believe all these idiots who take to the airwaves to do him down. I talked with him this week and told him to take things calmly. Let's not blame Leo. We have the best in the world, an exceptional boy."
He went on to say nobody had cried more than Messi after the World Cup elimination against Germany, thus putting to bed the ridiculous assertions that Messi didn't feel his country's jersey.
What exactly do the Argentine supporters expect to gain by booing and putting extra pressure on the shoulders of their best player? This does not look like a very clever strategy ahead of the quarterfinal match against Uruguay. Let's just hope Messi follows Diego's advice and remains calm and focused.
Given how badly the team has been performing, Argentina might very well need something special from Messi if they are to eliminate an excellent Uruguay side. That said, if the Costa Rica match is any indication, they're finally gelling as a team and should provide a better platform for Messi and their other stars to shine in the knockout stages.
Claims that Lionel Messi can't be the best player in the world because he fails to set the world on fire with Argentina are downright ridiculous. Such line of thought would lead us to conclude that all the best players in the world are Spanish. It's not like Messi has never done anything with Argentina.
While his international career doesn't match his spectacular club career, it hasn't been exactly bad. He won the U-20 World Cup (and was MVP of the tournament), the Olympic Games and reached the Copa America final in 2007, where he scored one of his finest goals. While you naturally expect more from this generation's greatest player, one must remember that he's only 24 and has a lot of time to improve his international record.
Blaming Messi for Argentina's disappointing performances is senseless. The other 10 players and the manager must share the blame. Messi might be the world's best player, but he will not win the Copa America alone. That's just not possible.
Messi himself once said that he dreamt of winning the World Cup, but that he wouldn't do it alone but as a part of a great Argentinian team. The truth is that great team still doesn't exist, and right now, Argentina's future in the Copa America doesn't look bright at all.
If they fail to win the competition, the blame will be placed on Messi's shoulders—no matter how unfair and unwarranted it might be. It just comes with the territory of being the world's greatest player.
You can follow me on Twitter @Manueltraquete.
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