Sunday, June 22, 2014

Don't Touch That Dial: Leo Messi and Argentina

The story of Leo Messi and the Argentinian National Team has long been a story of criminal waste. The appointment of Alejandro Sabella changed all that, and gave fans cause for optimism leading up to the World Cup. After two games, I still feel mostly justified in that optimism. But I am sick of the dominant narratives surrounding the team. So, let's review.

  1. In 2006, Argentina were fortunate to be managed by the marvellous Jose Pekerman, a man who knows a thing or two about setting up a team, and about youth development. He did all the right things in bringing a young, budding Messi into the team. (The mistake he made against Germany had nothing to do with Messi and everything to do with a sudden loss of faith in his talisman. But I digress.) 
  2. But even then there was something strange in the way senior members of that team spoke about Messi. We heard stories about how the young, shy Messi was uncomfortable within the highly hierarchical squad, all of whom knew each other and expected him to behave like any other young Argentinian player - join in the banter, Leo, but don't you forget that you're a kid. Messi was isolated and alone, except for his room-mate Oscar Ustari, who'd been with him in 2005 at the U20 World Cup.
  3. This trend continued with Coco Basile. Again, I don't blame him - Messi was unfinished. It wasn't ridiculous for him to be junior to Riquelme and co in a team built to service Roman.
  4. As a supporter of Argentina, having Maradona as manager was what I imagine a bad acid trip must be like. Going from the perfect system of Pep's Barca to the chaos of his Argentina was a shock to me, just watching - I can't imagine what it was like for players. Quite aside from his ineptitude, his squads contained a lot of the same senior guys from 2006, who still treated Messi like a kid. Hell, some of them even felt free to brutally dress him down in the locker room. (Of course, none of this is ever spoken of now.) Despite what Maradona said to the press, this wasn't a team built around Messi. This was a team with Messi grafted onto it. The same squad dynamics persisted. To waste the best player in the world the way Maradona did in 2010 was just bizarre, bordering on criminal.
  5. Sergio Batista was spineless and clueless. Argentina won games in spite of him, not because. The ultimate reflection of his complete lack of ideas and/or principle was his decision to try and squeeze Tevez - who has almost never performed for Argentina - into the line-up, resulting in an unbalanced team.
Now Messi's managing the team? Don't give me that crap. Sabella is a very smart man, but his instincts tend toward the pragmatic. That's why, faced with the prospect of his first World Cup match, he fell back on old habits - the trusty 3-5-2 he'd employed for difficult away games, and many times as a club manager. I can't blame him for that.

I can only commend him for seeing the light at half-time of the first game and switching back to the 4-3-3 that had brought Argentina success in qualifying. That formation was tried and tested, it maximised Argentina's attacking resources, it worked. Going back to it makes all the sense in the world. So what's the problem?

Under Sabella's leadership, for the very first time Messi is surrounded by a group of players who aren't going to try to play stupid macho dominance games with the best player in the world. This group accepts his quiet style of leadership. A lot of them have achieved whatever international success they have with Messi.

Out of the current squad, Messi, Aguero, Gago, Garay, Biglia and Zabaleta were all in Argentina's 2005 U20 World Cup squad. They weren't the most talented team there. But manager Pacho Ferrano learned to put his trust in Messi, one of the youngest players at that tournament. The players on that team did, too, and that was how they won. Those guys remember.

Before, the only thing critics could say to dent Messi, given the completeness of his skill-set, was that he wasn't enough of a leader. Now he's a dictator because he actually gave voice to the transparently obvious? (Hell, we were all screaming it during that first half.) Give me a break. This isn't just shouting heads on twitter either - this is coming from respected journalists in England, in Spain, in Argentina.

Tito Vilanova called Messi 'the least autocratic of the greats'. (Hat-tip to Rory Smith of the Times for that one.) When everyone else talks about how the team plays, it's a normal day. When Messi does it, it's sinister. Seriously, everyone else does it. I've just picked one story, but it's really easy if you want to play that game. For them, it's called taking responsibility, being a leader.

Now compare Messi's behaviour to that of other star players of his class, or close to it. Look at how they behave on the pitch, how they relate to team mates. Then come back and tell me he's a dictator.

The absurdity is those acting like having Messi on your team is such a huge problem, that it makes life difficult. As a supporter of both Argentina and Barcelona, I have countless memories of game-winning moments that say different. Any team would be lucky to have him.

Messi is a solution. He desperately wants to win the World Cup. If he has to play in goal to make it happen, he will. Fortunately, Sabella is smarter than that. Give the man some credit. Not everything is a Machiavellian power struggle. You've been watching too much House of Cards.

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