The Current

Lionel Messi hasn't always been beloved in Argentina. A World Cup trophy could change that

Even though Lionel Messi may be one of the greatest soccer players of all time, the Argentine star hasn’t always been well received by his country. But Jasmine Garsd says his standing in Argentina has changed in recent years, and Messi could cement his legacy if he leads his team to a World Cup trophy.

The soccer superstar says 2022 will be his final time representing Argentina at the tournament

This could be Lionel Messi's last great chance to win an elusive World Cup title. (Andres Kudacki/AFP via Getty Images)

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Even though Lionel Messi may be one of the greatest soccer players of all time, the Argentine star hasn't always been well received by his home country. But Jasmine Garsd says his standing in Argentina has changed in recent years, and Messi could cement his legacy if he leads his team to a World Cup trophy. 

But the team is on a knifes edge, at risk of falling out of the World Cup as the group stage comes to an end. Argentina lost a heart breaker against Saudi Arabia, so their game against Poland on Wednesday is a must-win if the team hopes to advanced to the playoff stage at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Messi has said this will be his last time playing for Argentina in the tournament, making it his final chance for World Cup glory. 

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She's a correspondent with NPR and host of The Last Cup, a podcast about Lionel Messi.

Just briefly tell us [Lionel Messi's] story. He was born in Argentina, but then left the country. 

Yes. What I find fascinating about Lionel Messi's story is that it truly is a story of economic migration, and it's rarely told in that way. 

He was born and raised in the countryside in a working class family. He was a soccer prodigy with a health problem. He had a serious health problem. And by the early 2000s, Argentina starts to spiral into economic disaster and the country eventually collapses in 2001. 

At an early age, Lionel Messi moved to Europe to train and become the soccer star he is today. (Getty Images)

And right before that, as the country is spiralling, his family, who cannot afford his health treatment, his family decides to go to Spain. He and his dad go to Spain, where he starts playing soccer more professionally. But he has to leave the core of his family — his mom, his siblings — behind. 

And it's an extremely difficult situation. And I found that there were some universal themes there about emigrating as a young child. 

Tell me more about that and those universal themes. 

For him, it's this wonderful opportunity and this relief. He's 12 years old. He finds himself in this position at 12, in which he essentially is kind of the family breadwinner. 

He goes and he trains with Barca Football Club, which is this brilliant club. And then every afternoon after training, he goes home and he cries silently in his room. He knows he cannot fail. And I think that's one universal theme — becoming the core breadwinner of the family at a really young age, knowing you can't fail, people are depending on you. 

He also has this enormous yearning and nostalgia for back home. He's always dreaming about going back and playing for the national team in World Cups, for example. You know, what my podcast focuses on is how when he gets back to Argentina, when he finally achieves this dream, people don't like him that much. People have moved on. 

Why is that the case? Because he's one of the greatest players of all time. But he exists in the shadow of another unbelievably great Argentinian player, and that's Diego Maradona. 

Yeah. I think there's a couple of reasons. I think when Lionel Messi goes to Europe as a 12 year old, he has to learn to play in a really different way. He learns to play soccer in this European, very organized, very methodical way. 

And he goes back and people are like, well, who is this guy? We've never heard of him. He's a European kid now. He left a long time ago. So there's this whole identity crisis. 

Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona (1960 - 2020) holds the FIFA World Cup trophy after Argentina won the 1986 FIFA World Cup Final. (Bongarts/Getty Images)

The other thing is he doesn't seem to perform as well for Argentina, and that's another, bar stool argument about why. But he's making all these record-breaking moves in Europe, and he is a historically good player in Europe, but he comes back to Argentina and puts on that blue and white jersey and just, like, [does] a belly flop every single time. 

And so people start to get really annoyed at him, like, who's this European kid who just came back and isn't playing well for us? And on the topic of Diego Maradona, who is like the other legendary and controversial soccer player, he represents something different. 

Diego Maradona was a kid from the slums, a brown kid from the slums who rose up against all odds. And he's just seen as quintessentially Argentine. 

And Messi is not despite the brilliance of his playing? He's not considered quintessentially Argentine, in your words? 

I think attitudes have shifted recently, in recent years, but for a very long time, Messi was seen as an Argentine kid who left really young and became European. And when we're talking about these universal themes of immigration, my day job is as a news reporter, and I kept seeing this in immigrant communities over and over again. Like the people who leave, there is suddenly like this alienation from the home country.

So … he comes to embody the resentment about people who leave the country. And I think there's a lot of discomfort around [him] for a very long time. 

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the FIFA World Cup against Mexico. (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

What about now? He said this is his final World Cup and people wonder where he's going to end up after this. How do people in Argentina see him now with with the possibility of the World Cup perhaps making its way back to Argentina? 

People have a lot more affection for him now. I think there's been a growing awareness of how much he's struggled to be accepted again. He also won several very important cups last year for Argentina. And so that definitely warmed people's hearts. 

Do I think he's going to be as beloved — fanatically, religiously beloved — as Diego Maradona? No, I don't think that. I think Maradona just represents kind of the core of Argentina's soul in a way that Messi might not. 

But people have a lot of affection. I saw a tweet the other day that said "Argentines usually want to win the World Cup for ourselves; this time around we want to win it for Messi." There's there's an understanding that he had a he had a difficult journey, you know. 


Produced by Enza Uda. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

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