In August 2014, a month after Argentina’s heartbreaking loss to Germany in the FIFA World Cup final, I laid foot in Diego Maradona’s enchanted country. A place where football is a religion and there’s only one god. A god whose hand (and feet, of course!) blessed them with a world title in 1986, a fact every Argentine made sure to remind me of whenever the “Maradona or Messi” debate popped up.
I was 17 at the time and fortunate enough to be selected for a football camp at Club Atletico Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Along with 15 of my teammates hailing from various cities in India, I lived a dream which many kids around the world would give anything for — two weeks of training at Maradona’s beloved boyhood club.
The author during his training stint at Argentine club Boca JuniorsLiam Bain
When asked about their thoughts on Messi, most Argentine fans brushed him aside
We were pleasantly surprised with the club’s homely vibe, the awe-inspiring atmosphere at La Bombonera, the excellent training facilities, the superior coaching methods and the quality of equipment. Not to mention the levels of professionalism and Argentina’s passion for football. But what will stay with me forever is the love and warmth that everyone showered on us. Our new friends would teach us Spanish, make us try local delicacies, inculcate age-old Argentine values in us and treat us like one of their own. We would often indulge in football conversations at the dinner or pool table that went on until we had to head back to our rooms.
In between all this, it was evident that Argentines were still smarting from the World Cup loss. When asked about their thoughts on Lionel Messi, most of them brushed him aside and claimed that midfield general Javier Mascherano was more instrumental in taking their country to the final. I was perplexed and found it hard to digest the fact that they did not appreciate someone like Messi, who had already bagged four Ballons d’Or by then (he has seven now).
‘Interacting with many Argentines, I gathered that they did not feel that Messi was one of them. Unlike Maradona, he was no ‘pibe’, the archetype Argentine hero who came from dismal poverty but was destined for universal fame…’
The great man was a victim of being El Diego’s predecessor and that was what had denied him the unconditional love of his compatriots at the time. The fact that he had shifted to Spain in his teens and did not wear his patriotism on his sleeve, sometimes even refusing to sing the national anthem, had not helped either. Interacting with many Argentines, I gathered that they did not feel that Messi was one of them. Unlike Maradona, he was no “pibe”, the archetype Argentine hero who came from dismal poverty but was destined for universal fame; a streetsmart, even sly, genius who could cheat and steal his way to victory as easily as he could mesmerise his opponents with sheer skill. Maradona had what Messi did not. The guile, the gumption, the guts. And, most importantly, the glory of the World Cup. When I left Argentina with a promise to come back one day, I wondered if the fans would ever warm up to Messi.
It is no secret that the trip changed my life forever. Soon enough, I became an avid follower of La Albiceleste, staying up all night to watch the heartbreaking Copa America losses and sharing the grief with millions of Argentines. But one person’s heart ached much more than the rest and it was that of Messi himself. Penalty misses, shootout upsets and even a premature retirement (which he would go on to reverse) cast a dark shadow over Messi’s glittering career as well as his self-belief. But champions never give up and Messi is one of the finest we have ever seen. He stared his international demons in the face and conquered South America in 2021, breaking the national team’s curse and setting the script for his last World Cup dance.
Time for Messi to take his rightful place beside El Diego on the throne
A giant projection of Messi in his hometown of RosarioUnsplash
Eight years on from their previous World Cup final, and ahead of their latest one, Argentines are still carrying the wounds of that 113th minute Mario Gotze strike. However, something seems to have changed. I have not been there since, but it is plain as day that the country has surrendered itself to one man during the World Cup in Qatar. It has taken almost a decade, but seeing Messi’s passion, drive and relentlessness to deliver for his motherland has made his fellow Argentines realise how much he cares for his country. They have woken up from a prolonged slumber to accept that they are blessed with someone who is as special as the late Maradona. As evident from social media, the country is out on a limb to support their team, led by Messi. The roads, streetlights and rooftops in Buenos Aires and beyond are packed with football fanatics, eagerly waiting for their ‘Messiah’ to take them to the promised land.
At long last, Argentines have acknowledged that if there is anyone who can end their 36-year-long wait for the holy grail, it is their 35-year-old talisman, who has conquered Spain and South America and is on the verge of World Cup immortality. If and when he completes his ultimate responsibility, Messi would not have usurped the legendary Maradona, but taken his rightful place beside El Diego on the throne.
Liam Bain is an amateur footballer and commentator for the I-League as well as several state-level cricket leagues