When Lionel Messi plays for his national team Argentina, it often feels like he’s carrying a burden. There seems to be little joy in his actions. The Argentines, in the past, have also accused of playing without any emotion and not being able to identify with him.
For all the success he has had with his club, FC Barcelona, which made Messi the best player of his generation, the same cannot be said of the national team. Although the 34-year-old has enjoyed success with the national team at the youth level, the last major trophy the men’s national team won was the Copa America in 1993.
Before that, Argentina had won the Copa America in 1991 and the World Cup in 1986. In the latter, the team was carried by the genius of Diego Maradona, the player whose shadow Messi has pursued ever since. The 1991 and 1993 Copa America titles were won by a tight-knit group of companions and hard workers such as Diego Simeone, who has since built a similar reputation as manager of Spanish champions Atletico Madrid.
Messi the best player of his generation
On Saturday night, at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Messi leads Argentina in the Copa America final against Brazil. Many believe this is his last chance to win a major trophy. It came close in 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany in the World Cup final (in the same stadium where tonight’s game will be played) and in 2016 when the Copa America celebrated its centenary. with a final in New Jersey in the United States.
That night Argentina lost to Chile in a penalty shootout. Messi took the first penalty and skied it through the crowd. It was the third final he lost to Argentina in 10 years. After the game, he announced his retirement. However, he returned to play for the national team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where the team and Messi were eliminated 4-3 by future champions France in the round of 16.
In the aftermath of this exit from the 2018 World Cup, Jesica Paola Kessler, an Argentinian sports administrator, argued that the Argentines judge the national team in the same way they judge the political management of the country. “In each case, the review takes place every four years and whoever is blamed is the charismatic leader,” she wrote.
While football and governance are usually teamwork, they blame or praise a player for the result.
“The same thing happens with governance. Whenever the charismatic leader appears, he acts as a messianic agent, who is seen as the only natural leader, with the right to rule and the only one qualified to rule and save the team or the country. When they fail, people scream for their heads, ”Kessler said.
Maradona carried that burden in the 1980s and he wreaked havoc at the end of this decade and beyond, while Messi has carried that burden since the late 2000s. He comes with the territory.
Fans watch Copa America on TV – matches are played in empty stadiums in Brazil; the tournament has been moved there due to the surge in COVID-19 infections in Argentina and anti-government protests in Colombia – and journalists covering it have noted, however, that Messi could finally come to terms with Argentina’s expectations. And that was most evident in Wednesday night’s semi-final against Colombia which had to be decided by penalties after a score of 1-1 in regulation.
Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was their hero, saving three of the penalties. But it was Messi, who converted his own kick, who received the most attention afterwards for his actions. As Martinez saved the penalty from Colombian Yerri Mina, a former Barcelona player known for his exaggerated celebrations, Messi raised his fists from the center circle and shouted at Mina: “How about you dance now?” This, combined with the way Messi wears Argentina, stood out. Of the Argentina team’s 11 goals, Messi has scored four and assisted five more.
“Righteous hope on Neymar”
Unsurprisingly, the final is billed as “Messi v Neymar”, his former Barcelona teammate. Like Argentina, Brazil’s global reputation stems primarily from its success as a footballing nation. Her team, on paper, are stronger than Argentina and they are favorites. With Neymar ahead, they made it through the group stages and knockout stages. But a lot of Brazilians cannot identify with the team. The majority of the team play in Europe.
Sao Paolo writer and researcher Danê Jaheem Sosaba says this generation of Brazilian national team players lack the abundance of superstars like the 2002 world champions, for example, who had likable players such as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. “Most Brazilians wouldn’t be able to name many other first-team players besides Neymar, so they put a lot of hope on him.”
But the alienation of the team is also linked to the current political and health crisis in the country. Brazil has a very unpopular right-wing government led by President Jair Bolsonaro, who admires the country’s military dictatorship that ruled violently in the 1960s. Bolsonaro has also downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. His country has recorded a total of 19 million cases and more than half a million deaths to date. In contrast, Argentina, whose center-left government has been credited with better management of the pandemic, has only 4.6 million cases and 98,000 deaths.
According to Sosaba, many Brazilian fans and commentators couldn’t help but notice “the contrast between Bolsonaro’s quick response to [continental football association] The CONMEBOL proposal [to host the tournament] and the late response of its administration to vaccine manufacturers ”.
It doesn’t help that many of Brazil’s national soccer team, including Neymar, are Bolsonaro supporters. Some of the players are devout charismatic or evangelical Christians, a group that forms the backbone of Bolsonaro’s base. One exception is the trainer, Titus.
One of the big talking points last week ahead of the final was that a significant portion of Brazilian fans would support Argentina. Some of them say they are doing it for Messi; he deserves “justice” for winning a competition wearing his national team jersey. In press conferences, Brazil captain Thiago Silva and another senior team player Marquinhos expressed surprise at the negative attitude Brazilian fans have towards the team. Neymar also weighed in. He lambasted Brazilian fans on Instagram, accusing them of being unpatriotic. “I never attacked and I never would
attack Brazil if they play for something, whatever the sport, a role model [beauty] contest, the Oscar… I am from Brazil, and who is Brazilian and does it differently? He concluded that if he respected their choice, they should “go to hell”.
It may not have helped Neymar’s reputation among Brazilian fans. “As a football player, he is considered a failure when it comes to decisive moments, important matches: he is often injured and does not play on these occasions”, explains a political commentator, very critical of the regard to the government and who wanted to remain anonymous. “His image is currently bad here in Brazil. I think a lot of Brazilians have more confidence in Messi’s low-key and cohesive style, ”unlike Neymar’s“ rich kid ”and“ clingy and shallow ”character.
It is telling that one of Neymar’s most incisive critics this week was former Brazil international Walter Casagrande, who built a reputation as a Corinthians center-forward in the 1980s. On a local TV sports show , a restless Casagrande compared Neymar to Bolsonaro. “I have never seen Neymar get angry with the crisis we are going through in Brazil. Neymar’s problem is that the fans support Argentina, then he gets angry, then he thinks he’s a patriot, then he feels like a Brazilian. He thinks being Brazilian is it? We’re in trouble right up to the front… with people dying, talking about vaccines, and he’s not angry about it. He is not angry with the people who die because of the incompetence of the Bolsonaro government. He is not sorry that the government has not decided to buy vaccines and is suspected of bribes and embezzlement. Then he doesn’t get angry.
At the end of the day, the Brazilians might not care. Sosaba says many Brazilians believe their government should not have hosted the tournament due to COVID-19 conditions. They don’t care that this is a “Bolsonaro” or “COVID tournament”. Fans, who were critical of Bolsonaro’s government, were emboldened when Tite and one of the team’s players, Casemiro, first said they would consider boycotting the tournament due to the COVID-19 response from the government. Bolsonaro’s supporters then accused Tite and his team of being “communists,” which led the two to back down.
“Because of all this [lead up], a lot of people don’t care about this edition of the Copa America, and it shows. the [local] The television network that broadcasts the tournament failed most of the time to achieve and maintain high ratings during matches, ”Sosaba said.
Messi’s victory may be more empty in more than one way.
Sean Jacobs is Associate Professor of International Affairs at The New School where he teaches the intersection of world football and politics. He is also the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Al Jazeera.