Messi Has Many Accomplices in Bid for World Cup

Three of Argentina’s biggest stars who ply their trade for professional clubs in Europe, left to right: Lionel Messi of Barcelona, Ángel di María of Real Madrid and Sergio Agüero of Manchester City. 

Argentina was ravaged in December and January, first by power outages and then by looting, after police officers left the streets unguarded as they protested for higher pay in a country beset by soaring inflation and hard economic times for much of the population.

But on the soccer field, Argentina boasts enough striking riches to power the team to win the World Cup starting this week in neighboring Brazil.

There isn’t only Lionel Messi, although he is the best of them and the most beguiling player on the planet. At the 2010 World Cup, he sometimes looked to be alone for Argentina. This time, though, the team has a number of options, including Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Rodrigo Palacio and, from the wing, Ángel di María.

The Brazilian star Neymar would no doubt crave any such accomplices in his team’s forward line. Of course, Argentina needs to find the balance in midfield and defense behind that rich goal potential.

None of those Argentine stars earn their fortune at home, where the soccer clubs struggle financially along with the rest of the nation.

Messi left for Barcelona at age 13. Agüero matured at Atlético Madrid and is now the darling of Manchester City; Lavezzi is Paris Saint-Germain property; Higuaín is at Napoli, the club where the Argentine great Diego Maradona finished his career; Palacio plays for Inter Milan, and Di María for Real Madrid.

The gravitation from Argentina to Europe’s rich paymasters is a no-brainer. In 1986, when La Albiceleste won the World Cup in Mexico, only three of the starting 11 in the final were employed abroad. Today, only one man on the entire roster, the reserve goalie Agustín Orión, has no experience outside his homeland.

In part, that explains why Messi is not, yet, the idol back home that Maradona was. Argentina must win this trophy for him to compare, and even then there are those who find him too distant, too nice, to represent the turbulent soul of Argentina in the way that Maradona did, and still does.

It’s possible to imagine Messi dancing through an entire defense to score, as Maradona did in successive games, against England and Belgium, en route to the 1986 final in Mexico. But who would ever expect Messi to fist the ball into the goal, as Maradona did against England in Mexico?

That was the roguish side of Maradona, who famously claimed that the goal was scored by the hand of God.

That was the Maradona who once replied in an interview request with an eye-bulging rant, shouting in reference to the contested Falkland Islands, called Malvinas in Spanish, “Give us back the Malvinas, you blank-blank Britisher!”

At the time, Maradona was a symbol for his country. Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president, even flew to Italy to meet with his star and bestow upon him the title Ambassador for the Sporting World.

A year or so later, when Maradona’s drug dependency deepened, Menem and his sports secretary, Victor Lupo, said in an interview in Buenos Aires that they wanted to save “this boy” from himself. They hoped to pass a law to prevent teenage soccer players from transferring abroad and losing touch with their families.

The law was never passed. The Argentine soccer authorities bristled at the suggestion of political interference. They would fight for the right of their boys to go abroad and thus make their often impoverished families rich.

Argentina’s clubs, like many across South America and Africa, had by then grown dependent on the money such trading of potential star players, even schoolboys, brought them. The Argentine Soccer Association president, Julio Grondona, said he would fight anyone, from Menem down, who tried to block that exchange.

Grondona, now 82, has led the Argentine association since 1979 and is the longtime chairman of FIFA’s finance committee.

He knows the mix of sports, sports politics and national politics better than most. He is now seeking Argentina’s second World Cup under his tenure, and its third since 1978, when the country, ruled at the time by a military junta, both staged and won the tournament.

That Argentina team had only one player who lived abroad: Mario Kempes, who had followed his fortune to Valencia in the Spanish league. The national team’s coach, César Luis Menotti, had the belief — old-fashioned even in that era — that he needed home-based players to imbue the squad with the high-tempo nationalistic pride he thought could win the World Cup.

Kempes was the one exception, but his grace, his speed and his eye for goals were truly exceptional. Kempes scored six goals during the tournament, including two in the final, which La Albiceleste won, 3-1, against the Netherlands. It felt that night as if the whole of the Argentine nation was inside the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires and as if more than a soccer trophy was at stake.

So Kempes, the big man with the flowing dark hair and a matador’s side step, was the outsider who started the trend followed by Maradona and now by Messi, Agüero and the other Argentines. The message is clear: You can go abroad. You might earn more in a year than the home-based players can expect over an entire career. And if you bring the goals “home” (and Brazil is only just over the border) all will be forgiven.

Argentina is a country in which a Maradona or an Agüero can rise from the barrios, where there is often little in childhood to stop a child from practicing soccer skills from dawn until dusk.

They might not be tall (Agüero measures 1.72 meters, or 5 feet, 8 inches, only 2.5 centimeters taller than Messi or Maradona) but instinctively they know how to dodge and weave and strike the ball.

It’s a habit that has taken South Americans all over the world. And one that has brought them to perform better in World Cups in the Americas than Africans, Asians, Europeans or North or Central Americans. Of the seven World Cups held in the Americas, Brazil has won three times, Argentina twice, and Uruguay twice.

Absence simply makes the heart grow fonder to come back a winner.

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