As improbable as it sounds right now, there was a time when the football-mad Argentine populace felt rather indifferent towards one of their biggest-ever products, Lionel Messi.
All that seems like a faint shade of a distant lucid dream as close to five million people gathered around the monumental Obeleico in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires to serenade the unit that had brought glory to the nation after nearly four decades.
Messi achieved his crowning moment in Qatar, draped in a local Bisht over the famous Albiceleste camiseta, as he hoisted the FIFA World Cup as high as he possibly could for the planet to marvel at the little man from Rosario.
The golden boy had delivered what the world, bar France, wanted to witness. Destiny’s child fulfilling his kismet.
It was one of those rare moments of solidarity in a world that is divided far beyond description on the basis of parameters unfathomable to one less travelled, as supporters worldwide, with the exception of the French camp, rallied behind the little magician to bring home what was deservedly him for his contributions to the beautiful game.
Year after year, Messi had performed supernatural recitals donning the esteemed Blaugrana jersey of FC Barcelona, helping the Catalunyan club on its way to everlasting football glory. Pep Guardiola had produced one of the most frighteningly strong sides in the modern history of the game and Messi was at the heart of it.
The La Masia products fused together in awe-inspiring fashion game after game to exhibit masterful pieces of artistry that any prodigal craftsman would be proud of, irrespective of his or her field of expertise.
But, while Messi’s trophy cabinet was overflowing unable to hold the massive list of personal and team accolades, the voices back home in Buenos Aires didn’t sound as content as one would expect.
The nation that had made a god out of Messi’s spiritual antecedent, Diego Maradona, refused to wholeheartedly enjoy La Pulga’s spellbinding wizardry with the ball at his feet as he hadn’t yet led the South American nation to the promised land of international glory.
And for the longest time, it almost seemed as if Messi wasn’t fated to hold aloft a trophy in the national colours. Alas, he had reached the Copa America finals thrice before finally bringing the Sudamericana title home in the year 2021.
Argentina had reached the 2007 Copa America final and Messi’s final taste of the South American summit game was a dreamy fixture against long-time rivals Brazil.
But, the maestro’s dream turned nightmarish as Brazil hammered the Argentines 3-0 at the Estadio Jose Encarnacion Romero in Venezuela.
Messi’s international misery wouldn’t stop there.
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Argentina had reached the finals of the world’s biggest football contest, the FIFA World Cup in the year 2014, held in enemy territory, Brazil. But this time around, they were up against the well-oiled footballing machine, Germany, who had decimated the home side in the semifinal game in what has gone down in football folklore as one of the most resounding events.
Messi could have attained the most prized possession in the sport all those years back, had it not been for Mario Gotze’s last-ditch winner that gave the Nationalelf their fourth World Cup.
Messi, despite being adjudged the player of the tournament, had to endure the long walk past the game’s most coveted prize without being able to touch and caress it as he would have dreamt of growing up. Not yet anyway.
The cosmos would further test the boy who was blessed with superhuman ability once he set foot on the green grass.
The man hailed as the messiah of millions reached a title clash once again in the year 2015 when Albiceleste made their way to the final of yet another Copa America. And this time it was against unfancied but industrious Chile headlined by the hardworking Alexis Sanches, who was the toast of London for his superhuman performances for the capital city club Arsenal.
The two had shared the dressing room for four years prior to the encounter at Barcelona, where they laid claim to a flurry of trophies walking hand in hand.
But, the title game set at the Estadio Nacional Julio Martinez Pradanos in Chile, swung the way of the home team as Sanchez celebrated at the end of a tense affair that was decided on penalties, while Messi was left licking his wounds.
The inconsolable Messi hung his head in distraught as another title opportunity in Argentine colours had passed him by without any yield. But, he did not have to wait too long for another shot at an international cup as CONMEBOL staged the Copa America Centenario to commemorate one hundred years since the inception of the continental body.
The USA was handed the honour of hosting the landmark event. The North American nation could have also witnessed another milestone had Argentina won the title, as it would have become the land where the magical Messi hoisted his first trophy for Argentina. But, once again, it wasn’t to be. And once again it was Chile who stood on Messi’s road to glory.
Yet another final between the South American nations, yet another penalty shootout and yet another Chile victory. Flashbacks of the earlier failures flashed inside the head of the man with the Midas touch.
What made the second time all the worse was probably the fact the main man himself had missed a penalty in the tiebreaker. And the deeply anguished Messi called time on his international career, one day after the cup went to the South American Reds.
Mouths across Argentina murmured as hearts around the Rio de la Plata felt the fabled Argentine jersey weighed too heavily on the shoulders of the little genius.
Messi decided to reverse his decision on international retirement as he pulled on the Argentina shirt once again a few months later.
Thankfully the seven-time Balon D’Or winner did so as his tale in white and blue deserved a victory for the ages. Argentina deserved joy and Messi deserved redemption.
Messi would get what he deserved and the world would get what it yearned for.
As Messi crossed his 30-year mark, an Argentine contingent capable of challenging for the big tournaments was coming through. The usual top-heavy, foundation-shaky squad composition of the national team seemed to taper towards a rather more balanced equation.
The year 2018 rolled around and Lionel Scaloni, a former teammate of Messi during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, took the reins of command of the national team with more the singular intent of bringing back a trophy to Argentina.
Scaloni envisioned a united Argentine team with the little genus at the centre of it all. The coach built a team around the magical number 10 as he instilled a mindset within the team that urged players to play for one another and rally their strengths behind the generational talent of Messi capable of turning games around in an instant.
And the 44-year-old’s efforts paid off as he lead Argentine into yet another Copa America final against familiar opponents, Brazil. But, this time around, the results would be different from the previous occasions when Messi had made it to the final day of the tournaments.
The championship match was moved to Brazil following civil unrest in Colombia while co-host Argentine struggled with the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases.
Another ultimate day clash had Messi headlining the fixture, but this time around, the end result would go in favour of the Argentine master.
An Angel Di Maria strike proved enough for the Albiceleste beyond enemy lines as Messi lifted the Copa America to the delight and relief of the players, coaches, fans and probably most important of all, himself.
His shirt weighed a little lighter now after the continental accolade for his beloved Argentina. But, the best part was yet to come.
Then came the on-off Finalissima came that pitted the champions of South America against the Champions of Europe, Italy.
Italy, despite embarrassingly missing out on back-to-back World Cup spots, managed to clinch the Euro 2020 title, much to the dismay of the English men who lost the ultimate fixture, remembered for Giorgio Chiellini mercilessly catching Bukayo Saka by the collar of his shirt as the young gun was headed goalbound on the right.
The inter-continental cup fixture was played at the iconic Wembley as Argentina romped to a 3-0 win over the Meditteranean nation.
An aire of confidence came about the Argentine team that was part of the unit that helped Messi to a second trophy in international drip ahead of the all-important competition, the World Cup. A sense of self-assurance that could only be acquired by getting a taste for glory with consistent victories pushed them forward in pursuit of the ultimate prize.
Argentina were one among the favourites, besides Brazil and holders France, heading to Qatar to play in the Middle East’s first-ever World Cup. But, it all seemed like the tag evaporated following their opening-day shocker. The Argentines went down to Saudi Arabia 2-1 in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.
The defeat ended Argentina’s 36-game unbeaten streak coming into the World Cup campaign and Messi’s ultimate dream seemed nearly over before it began.
But, per some, the loss proved to be a wake-up call for the players who had their heads in the clouds due to the heavy tag. Scaloni rallied his troops and lifted their spirits while somehow managing to maintain the balance by keeping his highly paid ensemble of players plying their trade across the globe grounded.
Marshalled by the spark of Messi on the field, Argentina came back to start their second game of the tournament stronger. They progressed from their group with victories over Mexico and Poland.
Australia was their first hurdle in the knockouts, which the South Americans brushed aside with calm. Then came the match against The Netherlands which produced the most bookings in a single game in Qatar. An ill-tempered affair that ended with Argentina winning on penalties, before the now famous ‘Que Miras, Bobo?’ exchange between Messi and Dutch goalscorer Wout Weghorst. Even the highly respected Messi did not hold back during their encounter as he celebrated his goal in a fashion emblematic of veteran countryman Juan Roman Riquelme as he cupped both his ears while striking a look of menace towards the Dutch bench where Louis Van Gaal and Edgar Davids were perched.
La Albiceleste outclassed Luka Modric-led Croatia 3-0 to set up a date with destiny against holders France.
The final that followed, as they say, is history. Messi and co. came out on top in a thriller that finished 3-3 after extra time and required a shootout to decide the victor.
After a back-and-forth affair, Gonzalo Montiel sent his effort into the net to spark wild celebrations across the earth as Messi fell to his knees in adulation.
The man who had wept time and again in defeat was left teary-eyed in victory as he emulated Maradona in bringing World Cup back to Buenos Aires. A second player of the tournament at the World Cup came his way as he ended the campaign in the desert region with seven goals and three assists.
But, all that is detail. The big picture and the headline? Messi led Argentina to the promised land.
Messi stood tall on the podium that has witnessed players par excellence seal their place in the pantheon of football greats. And with the addition of Messi, there is a certain lustre that was added to the list.
The victory sparked frenzied celebrations everywhere, but most profoundly back in the South American nation. Amid the pandemonium of the celebratory parade, which ended in the whizz being airlifted as ecstasy went out of humane control, there was one particular moment so surreal that it sounds borderline fictitious.
As Leandro Paredes handed the coveted trophy to Messi, riding atop the victory bus, a surreal light shone down upon him from the sky as if to signify a celestial shower from above.
The boy from Rosario had fulfilled his destiny. His trophy cabinet was full, but more importantly, the little genius’ hearty desire ever since he picked up the ball was now complete.
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