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How Pep talk came to Sabella’s rescue

Sao Paulo: Argentina are just one game away from winning their first World Cup for 28 years, with their main source of inspiration, Lionel Messi, poised for immortality. What is less known, however, is just how close the boy from Rosario had come to abandoning his country just three years ago.

In July 2011, Argentina hosted a disastrous Copa America that saw them stumble into the quarter finals before being bundled out after a penalty shoot-out against eventual winners Uruguay. The country needed a scapegoat and Messi fitted the bill perfectly.

In Argentina’s fickle pecking order players such as Messi, who begin their search for fortune in foreign lands rather than progressing up the domestic ladder first, have always run the risk of being despised back home.

When everything fell apart in 2011, the country’s potential match-winner went from hero to villain. The same crowds that, today, spend much of their time bent double, claiming they are not worthy, booed, jeered and whistled him, contemptuously referring to him as ‘el Catalan’ — an inference that the only shirt he felt any pride for, was the one he wore for club, not his country.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, and Messi was deeply hurt and discussed long and hard with his family the possibility of never playing for his country again.

Many years before, as a 16-year-old, three-and-a-half years after arriving in Barcelona, the Spanish football federation had tried to make him wear the red of Spain. It would be a futile effort as Lionel and his family wanted anything else than a role with Argentina.

No one exemplifies the saying, that while you can get the boy out of the country, you can never get the country out of the boy, better than Messi.

It was the appointment of Alejandro Sabella that would prove critical in establishing Messi’s status with the ‘La Albiceleste’. Sabella sought the advice of Pep Guardiola, then Messi’s manager at Barcelona, on how to best utilise the player.

“Understand his silences, build your team around him, give him the ball, and never, never, substitute him,” was the advice proffered by Guardiola. Sabella knew what he had to do.

After consultations with Javier Mascherano, the captain at the time, and Messi, it was decided to offer him the captaincy. Sabella knew that Messi preferred to play in the hole behind two forwards and preferably with a wing back servicing him along the flank in an overall 4-3-3 formation, but was concerned about the team getting divided and being exposed defensively. He needed to balance that system.

Having tried different systems, mostly 4-4-2, and following an unimpressive start to their World Cup qualification campaign everything fell into place on November 11, 2011, in Barranquila, Colombia, when Messi starred in that formation, with Argentina coming back to win 2-1. That became the day Argentines fell back in love with Messi.

That should have been that but Sabella’s defensive instincts got the better of him as he felt that an over-indulgence in Messi’s natural attacking instincts still left his side vulnerable. So he started the World Cup with three centre-backs.

A fairly sterile opening first half against Bosnia was enlivened with the introduction of Fernando Gago in midfield, Gonzalo Higuain up front and a return to a flat back-four and three forwards, a change thought to have been brought about by a half-time display of player power from the team leaders.

In that single moment it had become clear that if this tournament was going to be won it would be won by placing all eggs in the ample Lionel Messi basket, sitting back and waiting for that one moment of magic to arrive.