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Messi finally earning complete trust of his dependent Argentinian family


Argentina's current playing system, conceived to make chances for Lionel Messi, has worked so far in this tournament. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Argentina's current playing system, conceived to make chances for Lionel Messi, has worked so far in this tournament. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Argentina's current playing system, conceived to make chances for Lionel Messi, has worked so far in this tournament. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

In 2004, the Argentinian FA was getting worried. It had learnt about a brilliant young forward at the Barcelona academy who was in danger of playing for Spain. Apart from that, they did not know too much about him. A letter was dispatched to Barcelona, but nobody at the AFA was sure how to spell his name. And so it was that Lionel Messi's first official invitation to play for Argentina was addressed to 'Leonel Mecci'.

For some reason, it was a while before Argentinians took Messi to heart. But last Wednesday, as he buried a brilliant free-kick against Nigeria and ran towards the fans, they were raising both hands and physically bowing down before him. Porto Alegre is close to Brazil's southern border, and Argentina's fans were turning it into a virtual home game. "Messi, Messi, Messi," they chanted.

Messi's four goals have taken Argentina into the last 16 of the World Cup, where they play Switzerland on Tuesday. And yet, until a couple of weeks ago he had not scored in an international tournament for seven years. The striker whose feats at club level place him among the greatest ever to play the game had shown only fleeting glimpses of that form in the blue and white of Argentina.

Three years ago, at the Copa America, fans booed him off the pitch as they succumbed to a limp quarter-final exit on home soil. "Leo is really down about this," his father, Jorge, said. "He can't understand how this happened. It's the first time they've whistled at him."

Although injuries curtailed his output for Barcelona last season, the Messi of 2014 is not drastically different to the Messi of 2011 in terms of quality. And yet, in just 10 days, he has managed to score more major tournament goals than in the previous eight years. Not only that, but he is loved, and in a way he was never loved before. So what has changed?

When he first emerged, Argentinian media often referred to Messi as an "Argentine-Spanish" player. His debut in 2005 lasted 44 seconds. Messi came on as a sub, got the ball, started running, a Hungarian defender started pulling his shirt, and Messi responded by elbowing him in the face. Spanish media reported that when his team-mates came back to the dressing-room, they found him sitting in a corner, sobbing.

The year after that, Argentina were nursing a 1-0 lead against Germany in the World Cup quarter-final with 12 minutes to go. Manager Jose Pekerman, the man who had first alerted the AFA to Messi's potential, had one substitution left. Off came Hernan Crespo, and on went Julio Cruz, a big, physical striker with a record of three international goals in nine years. Two minutes later, Germany equalised. Watching the losing penalty shoot-out and ensuing mass brawl from the bench was Messi.

The year after that, Argentina were humbled 3-0 by Brazil in the final of the Copa America. Messi barely got a touch. In 2010, Argentina again crashed out in the quarter-finals to Germany, this time 4-0. Bastian Schweinsteiger marked him out of the game. Playing just behind Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, Messi ended up being forced deeper and deeper in pursuit of the ball. Although he had a better tournament than many people remember - he pulverised Nigeria in a group game, for example - one bare fact remained: no goals, no cup, and the world's greatest striker had ended the tournament playing as a glorified central midfielder.

It became increasingly clear that Argentina had to find a way of getting the best out of their best player. And new coach Sergio Batista had an idea of how he could do it.

In early December, Batista returned from the Nou Camp, where he had just watched the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid, and declared: "At the moment, there is nobody in the world better than Barcelona. I want Argentina to play like Barcelona."

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The imitation morphed into an obsession. As journalist Martin Mazur wrote in FourFourTwo magazine: "The Ezeiza training ground became a sort of lab for mimicking the Catalan playing style. In press conferences, Barcelona were mentioned more times than Argentina."

There was one problem. Reproducing the delicate Barcelona strategy - with Messi as a withdrawn forward - required outstanding footballers who could execute an almost perfect passing game. But as Argentina quickly found, Ever Banega was not Xavi. Pablo Zabaleta was not Dani Alves. Perhaps most importantly, Batista was no Pep Guardiola. Argentina's 2011 Copa America ended in boos, and Batista was replaced by Alex Sabella.

Sabella's first move was to go to Barcelona and meet Messi. He made Messi his captain, and asked him how he wanted the team to play. The result was their present lopsided 4-3-3 system, which often sees Angel di Maria advancing from midfield to turn it into a 4-2-4.

Tevez did not fit into this new system. Also, Tevez was stroppy and would complain to the press when played out of position, which in this formation he often was. Which explains why Tevez is on holiday with his family and has vowed not to watch a minute of the tournament.

Does the system leave them occasionally exposed at the back? Probably. Does it get the best out of Sergio Aguero? Almost certainly not, although the latter's injury now makes that a moot point. But Sabella has made it clear that these are secondary concerns. The system has been conceived with the express intention of creating chances for Messi. The results so far this tournament speak for themselves.

When he was manager, Diego Maradona ran his squad on a simple basis: if you were Argentinian, you got a cap. He called up more than 100 players during less than two years in charge. Sabella, by contrast, has kept virtually the same group of players intact for the last two years.

What do people crave most in life? A lot of the time, it is something they were denied when they were young. Zlatan Ibrahimovic always has food in the fridge, a legacy of a neglected childhood in Malmo when his alcoholic father would forget to feed him. When Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Lisbon at the age of 11, he would often get into fights at school. Kids teased him about his strong Madeira accent. His entire career and deportment can be interpreted as a demand for respect.

And Messi? He was traumatised by leaving Rosario for Barcelona's youth academy at the age of 13, and again when his mother left Spain after just five months, taking Lionel's sister and two brothers with her.

It is possible to read Messi's career ever since as a quest to restore order. He trusts few people outside his inner circle, eschews the celebrity lifestyle, married a girl from Rosario, spends every spare moment back home, visiting family and friends.

He has constructed a family within the world of football, too. Virtually all players say the team is the most important thing, but with Messi it has become almost an article of faith. Those early years in Spain, when he struggled to fit in as an outsider, left an impression on him. Football is his life, the team is his family, and as with any family he wants it to be as settled as possible. Now, for the first time, this Argentina squad feels like a family. Insiders claim the spirit in the squad is as good as it has ever been.

From Messi's point of view, perhaps it is a vaguely familiar sensation: a group of people he trusts and loves, propelled to ever greater heights on the back of his talents, everyone fighting for each other.

"He's very well," Javier Mascherano said after the Nigeria game. "He needed these kind of performances at a World Cup. Maybe up until now that had not happened and he needed it. This is very good for him."

The question, really, is not whether Argentina depend on Messi. Like all the best families, they both depend on each other.


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