With backs against the wall, staring over the abyss into the pit of international mediocrity, Argentina needed a rescue act. For so long, the football-obsessed nation has turned to Lionel Messi in its hour of need.
But after a torrid qualifying campaign, Messi joined late following the despair of a Copa America final defeat to Chile on penalties. Questions were being asked about the greatest player on the planet.
Those questions continued with World Cup elimination staring Argentina in the face. But Messi temporarily quieted any concerns with the 44th hat-trick of his career to sink Ecuador and book Argentina's passage to the World Cup finals.
The celebrations in the dressing room highlighted the relief and the joy that victory brought, but scratch under the surface and there are problems one supreme performance cannot gloss over.
The headline on the front page of Wednesday's Argentinian sport newspaper Ole declared: "Messi is Argentinian." Outside Argentina, these huge words printed in yellow may seem redundant, if not simply silly. Taken literally, everyone knows Messi is Argentinian. However, in Messi's homeland, this headline can be decoded in another way, as it has at least three meanings.
Firstly, it's a word-play linked to an old Argentinian saying that God is Argentinian, which connects to another (footballing) saying that "Diego Maradona is God" (he is named in the media as D10S, with "Dios" meaning "God" in Spanish). But it's also strongly linked with the severe criticism Messi has received since the very beginning: that he isn't a true Argentinian.
Although he neither reads papers nor watches TV, Messi is aware he is regularly criticised in Argentina. As he admitted in a July interview with TV show Alma de Potrero: "I no longer care about critics, but I did care at the beginning, because there were so many things people said about me. I was a boy and didn't understand why I was so criticised."
While worshipped in Catalonia, the relationship between Messi and Argentinian fans has never been smooth. It's been more of a love-hate one: He was loudly booed during the 2011 Copa America played in Argentina, but fans begged him to have second thoughts following his retirement. The loss to Chile was his fourth in an international final (Copa America 2007, World Cup 2014, Copa America 2015, Copa America 2016), and he was tired as well as frustrated.
Afterward, he announced his retirement from international play:
"I have tried so hard to be a champion with Argentina. But it didn't happen. I couldn't do it. So I think it's best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. This is over, this is my decision."
At that point, Argentina weren't struggling in the qualifiers—they had already picked up 11 points from six games and were third in the table ahead of Brazil in sixth.
It was understandable. Messi had been criticised for a long time, even for not singing the national anthem before games, which gave fuel to the notion he wasn't a true Argentinian. Messi was drunk in May 2009 when he spoke in Catalan for the first time in public while holding a microphone surrounded by his Barcelona team-mates in front of a full Camp Nou during the celebrations for winning the treble (UEFA Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey). He yelled, "Visca el Barca y visca Catalunya" ("Long live Barca and long live Catalonia").
He had lived and studied in Catalonia since 2000 and perfectly understood spoken Catalan. He told Argentinian TV station TyC Sports in 2009, "Once you get used to it, it's an easy language."
He has never publicly backed the Catalan independence movement because, according to Sebastian Fest, co-author with Alexandre Juillard of the book Misterio Messi, he doesn't care about politics in Spain or Argentina. Nevertheless, he is unquestionably loved passionately in Catalonia.
Conversely, in his homeland, he has been scrutinised since the beginning. He has even been treated as if he wasn't an Argentinian by a considerable, intense portion of his countrymen, no matter how hard he has tried to be—and look—like an Argentinian. He talks like an Argentinian, he insults like an Argentinian and he jokes like an Argentinian, even though he left his hometown Rosario and moved to Catalonia at 12.
"I don't sing the national anthem because I don't feel I have to," Messi told Alma de Potrero. "Every person feels the national anthem in different ways, and mine is feeling it inside my body while listening to it."
Criticism for not singing the national anthem is closely linked with another complaint fans and journalists have regularly made of Messi—not being like Maradona. Maradona is remembered for singing it passionately and for insulting Italian fans booing it during the 1990 World Cup. In the fans' imagination, Maradona never underperformed playing for Argentina and won the 1986 World Cup by himself without his team-mates' help, while Messi has failed in four finals and has never been the charismatic leader he was expected to be.
So the homage Messi is being paid now in Argentina was unthinkable earlier this week, when he and his Argentina team-mates were on the verge of missing a World Cup for the first time since 1970.
It's no wonder the players, an exultant Messi included, sang inside the dressing room after the game: "We don't care what the f--ker journalists say. Sons of bitches. You have to cheer the national team. You have to cheer the national team until death."
Because there is another story behind all this jubilation: the story of Messi's suffering throughout these qualifiers.
"It's difficult for me to play alongside Messi [in the national team]," Juventus star Paulo Dybala said during a press conference before the UEFA Champions League clash between FC Barcelona and Juventus in September.
Unintentionally, the 23-year-old striker had fed the beasts. The sensationalist media in Argentina, but also well-respected TV pundits such as 1986 World Cup champion and former Argentina captain Oscar Ruggeri, criticised Dybala harshly, as if he had committed a crime.
Dybala, who at that point had played only three games with Messi, explained at the press conference that, though enjoyable, it was difficult to play alongside the Barcelona ace because they play the same position.
"He didn't mean to criticise Messi at all—conversely, he has said that playing with him is a dream come true," journalist Marcos Villalobo, author of Dybala's biography, La Joya, told B/R.
Nevertheless, it became a scandal.
It acted as evidence something was wrong inside the dressing room. And Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli didn't help when he benched Dybala in the last two games against Peru and Ecuador. Of course, something was wrong in Argentina. How else could you explain the inexplicable—that a national team starring Messi and a world-class supporting cast including Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Icardi, Dybala, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria was struggling in the qualifiers? What was wrong with Argentina? Or, more specifically, what was wrong with Messi?
1986 World Cup champion and 1990 runner-up Carlos Bilardo feels the problems started when Julio Grondona died in July 2014. Grondona was president of the country's football association from 1979 until his death. Nicknamed "The Godfather," he appeared without being properly named as "co-conspirator No. 10" in the FBI investigation into FIFA after he died. During his reign, only once did an opponent pop up: a former referee called Teodoro Nitti, who voted for himself and was defeated 40-1 in 1991.
Grondona—also FIFA vice-president and finance committee chairman, even though he didn't know how to use a calculator—had a good relationship with Messi, who interrupted a holiday with his family in Italy to fly back for his funeral in Buenos Aires.
Since Grondona's death, the FA has been a mess, and Messi has evidently suffered. There were delays at airports ("My God, what a disaster the FA," Messi wrote on Instagram during the Copa America 2016 in the United States, after a flight was delayed), and flights on cheap charters like LaMia, the Bolivian company that became known worldwide following the plane crash involving Brazilian team Chapecoense in Colombia in which 71 people died.
Messi was in Barcelona during the 2015 FA election in Buenos Aires, the first one after Grondona's death, which ended up tied 38-38 between candidates Luis Segura and Marcelo Tinelli even though 75 people had voted. That's the FA Messi has had to deal with throughout these qualifiers.
"But without Grondona, we have also had so many changes in terms of coaches; three coaches throughout the qualifiers," 78-year-old Bilardo, who is no longer a manager but a lecturer around the world, told B/R. He added, "So, even though these players have known each other for like 10 years, that's troublesome. 'What's going on here?' they may well ask while seeing one coach being suddenly sacked and another coach suddenly appointed. And that surely has had an impact on the players. It definitely did."
Before Messi's debut in the national team in 2005—when he was sent off 40 seconds after coming off the bench because he unintentionally elbowed a Hungarian—Argentina had six coaches in 32 years: Cesar Menotti, Bilardo, Alfio Basile, Daniel Passarella, Marcelo Bielsa and Jose Pekerman. Since Messi's debut, there have been eight coaches in 12 years: Pekerman, Basile, Maradona, Sergio Batista, Alejandro Sabella, Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Sampaoli.
The instability has reached its peak in these qualifiers. As Bilardo pointed out, Argentina have had three coaches with three different styles. It started with former Barcelona boss Martino, who believed in players' inspiration and quit when he grew tired of not getting paid and the FA's disorganisation.
Then came Bauza, appointed out of the blue while working at Brazilian club Sao Paulo and whose contract with them was said to have a release clause in case Ecuador's FA offered him a job (and not Argentina, as he had never dreamt about managing Argentina). He believed in defensive stability with a conservative style, said that Argentina would play the 2018 World Cup final while struggling in the qualifiers and was sacked by the FA after eight games.
Finally, there is Sampaoli, who believes in offensive football and tactical innovation. Consequently, Argentina has shown no coherent style of play in the qualifiers.
Argentina legend and 1978 World Cup champion Mario Kempes disagreed with Bilardo. The former Valencia striker, who played in three World Cups (1974, 1978 and 1982) and now lives in the U.S., where he is an ESPN TV commentator, blamed the players for the troubles Argentina has gone through in the qualifiers.
"It's not the coaches' fault but the players'. We are talking about world-class footballers that play in the best clubs in Europe," Kempes told B/R. "But the problem here is that they have clearly underperformed in these qualifiers. Actually, you could see in the games that, when they were in trouble and under pressure, team-mates desperately passed the ball to Messi expecting him to solve everything by himself."
Roberto Ayala, who was Argentina captain from 1998 until 2006, added: "Messi is definitely our best player but should be a piece in a team—the most important piece, obviously—but he should be supported by his team-mates and a tactical system inside the pitch. But that hasn't happened in the qualifiers. He wasn't supported but left alone, and we were all waiting for him to do all by himself."
He certainly has a point. Against Ecuador, both Di Maria and Icardi wasted decent chances while Messi was clinical inside the box. It's no wonder that Argentina have scored only 19 goals in 18 games, three more than underdogs Bolivia and the same number as Paraguay and Venezuela, both of whom failed to qualify, even though Higuain, Icardi, Dybala, Aguero and Messi played regularly.
Ayala, who is studying to be a manager while enjoying his status as one of Argentina's best footgolfers, added: "We should definitely be a good team, but we are not. We have had no long-term projects in Argentina, and Messi has suffered. We have certainly done everything wrong without realising that Messi won't be here one day."
Ayala knows what he is talking about: He worked for only a month as Argentina national teams director from October until November 2016, when he unexpectedly quit because some decisions had been made without his knowledge.
Argentina has become Messi-dependent. And the media has criticised him throughout the qualifiers because that dependency, as they say, had to do with what it is called the "Messi Friends Club." The sensationalist media, but also some well-respected journalists, have pointed out that Argentina's trouble throughout the qualifiers was a logical consequence of picking underperforming friends of Messi like Paris Saint-Germain winger Di Maria or Sevilla playmaker Ever Banega.
It's actually an urban legend in Argentina that Messi picked the national team players, not the coaches.
Hernan Claus, a journalist who has covered news regarding the national team for Ole since 1999 and has interviewed Messi several times, refuted that notion to B/R:
"It is not like people and even some journalists say: Messi doesn't pick the players. He intervenes less than people think. Actually, the so-called 'Messi Friends Club' is not a real thing. Banega wasn't called up to the 2014 World Cup even though Messi is a close friend of his; Aguero has never been the main No. 9 in the national team and has been regularly benched even though he is also a close friend of Messi; or think about Pablo Zabaleta, who is no longer in the squad. So where is this 'Messi Friends Club'?"
Although Maradona has backed Messi publicly several times, he has undermined him subtly in a classic Maradonian way. While coaching him (which was always Messi's mother's dream) from 2008 until 2010, the former Napoli ace addressed Messi as Lio and not Leo. Although he is called Lionel, Messi is known worldwide as Leo and signs his name as "Leo Messi."
Even today, Maradona keeps calling him Lio. When he was appointed as Argentina manager in 2008, Maradona said Argentina would be "Mascherano-plus-10" without mentioning Messi. Then there was the time Maradona was in conversation with Pele in Paris in 2016. Without noticing the cameras were recording his chat, Maradona said: "Messi is a good person but does not have the character to be a leader."
The comparison between Maradona and Messi reappeared as Argentina's troubles grew throughout the qualifiers. Ayala said: "The comparison has been damaging but also pointless. Why should we compare Messi with Maradona instead of enjoying them?"
In July 2016, Argentinian novelist Juan Jose Becerra wrote in the paper Clarin:
"They are two equivalent beasts even with their differences. Maradona is Elvis Presley singing 'My Way' at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. He embodies the deity and the ruin, the absolute power and the sunset, the snowy peaks and the abyss. And Messi is Paul McCartney. He is the long-play list, the career, the talent expanded without pauses, the continuity and the health. Ask one of them to have what the other has doesn't look to be a proof of social intelligence but a proof of the galloping dissatisfaction of a country—half country—that doesn't conform with having two of the three best footballers in history in less than 40 years."
As Maradona did in 1993, Messi returned to the national team after quitting. Since then and until Tuesday night, it had all gone dramatically downhill. He was banned for two matches because he lost his temper and insulted a referee even though his team had defeated Chile at home. Argentina collapsed with two embarrassing draws at home against Venezuela and Peru. The fans and journalists were furious.
But in the end, that's the passionate, footballing Argentina—a country in which Messi isn't seen as a winner yet because he hasn't won a title with the national team, with his 2008 Olympics gold medal not considered important enough.
It was actually Bilardo who has been professing this ideology for 35 years.
"Messi and his team-mates don't get the recognition from the fans simply because they have lost three finals in the last three years. It's understandable. This is like if you are a student: You go to the university and get excellent grades day after day after day, but you fail at the final exam. It doesn't matter what you had achieved when you fail at a final exam."
And Messi knows it. As he said in July: "Argentinians think they do know everything about football. It is what it is. I always say that if we had reached a World Cup final and two Copa America finals for another country, well, it would've been different [in terms of recognition]. But this is Argentina."
On Tuesday night, with his hat-trick against Ecuador, Messi gave Argentina—and himself—another chance to win an international trophy.