Photo: Argentina’s Lionel Messi, center, holds the winners’ trophy as he celebrates with fans after Argentina won the World Cup final soccer match against France at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Henry Bushnell, Yahoo!Sports
LUSAIL, Qatar, Sun. Dec. 18, 2022
Lionel Messi cried when he left Argentina. He was 13 years old and zooming down Ruta Nacional 9, from Rosario to a Buenos Aires airport, with endless pastures whizzing by, when tears welled and fears of a faraway land set in.
Messi was, at the time, just Leo, a 4-foot-8 prodigy with skyscraping dreams. And to chase them, he had to sacrifice. He had to hurriedly wave goodbye to friends and to comfort, to family and to his favorite places on Earth. To jumpstart his rise to the top of global soccer, he had to jet to Barcelona; he had to leave home.
But as he rose over the 22 years that followed, from Leo to Messi, collecting Ballon d’Ors and $1 billion as he went, home never left him. He lived a spotlighted yet secluded life in Spain, but seemingly longed for the city that had shaped him. He clung to his Rosarino accent, swallowing consonants everywhere he went. He maintained his childhood house even after his family had deserted it. He married a Rosarina at a Rosario hotel. He talked about how, someday, he wanted to return.
In the meantime, he channeled his longing into soccer. He wanted, more than anything, to make Argentina happy. He wanted, “more than anyone,” he said, “to win a title with the national team,” to bring the World Cup home.
On Sunday, in a maniacal final for the ages, he won it. He kissed a gleaming trophy and lifted it, with 25 of his closest friends surrounding him and unbridled happiness beaming from his face.
And along the way, en route to his coronation, with genius and joy and grace throughout his last World Cup, he won something else that once seemed just as elusive: his country’s undying love.
Messi’s move to Barcelona
Leo was born with extraordinary talent into an ordinary family, which grew from two to six at a modest home on a one-way street in south Rosario. His dad worked at a steel factory. His mom cleaned houses to help support their lower-middle-class existence. Leo was their third son, and Argentina’s umpteenth dreamer. He’d prance around nearby fields, a ball already strung to his magical left foot. His childhood, per most retellings, seemed idyllic—until he stopped growing.
Around age 10, Leo was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency. Doctors prescribed medicine that was cumbersome and expensive. Leo would lug around a small blue cooler and inject the liquid into his own legs every single day. His family’s health insurance and his youth club, Newell’s Old Boys, covered a chunk of the cost.
But then Argentina, as a nation, plunged toward economic crisis. Newell’s walked back its financial commitment. And for the Messis, money got tight. They went in search of another club that would help fund Leo’s $1,000-a-month treatment. They landed, in the fall of 2000, some 6,500 miles away in Spain.
Barcelona, in a way, rescued the prodigious talent in Leo’s stunted body. Executives and agents hashed out an agreement that became the foundation for one of the most fruitful club-player relationships in soccer history. Messi would, over two decades, lead his adoptive club to 34 trophies and claim just about every individual accolade.
But in those early months, Leo’s first outside Argentina, he’d hide in his bedroom and weep. He was so shy, barely even uttering words to teammates, that they began calling him “el mudo,” the mute one. He wowed them in training, but a regulatory conflict restricted him from playing for Barca’s Juvenil A team, so he struggled. As he and his father, Jorge, hopped from hotels to a flat—and as his mother and siblings, who initially accompanied them, returned to Argentina—he’d often cry himself to sleep.
He missed them, and his cousins, and the rhythms of life back in Rosario, the only community he’d ever known. He missed the ragged fields where he’d fallen for the game and developed his fútbol addiction. He missed Argentine food and dialects, and most of all the people who nurtured him as one of them. He missed home.
A foreigner at home
Over time, he settled in Barcelona. He trained on pristine fields and learned a more methodical version of the game. And to most of Rosario, for a few years in a pre-digital age, he disappeared.
Even in Argentine soccer, he became something of an enigma. Hugo Tocalli, a youth national team coach, learned of Messi via a now-fabled video tape. There, on a fuzzy screen, was little Leo in an oversized Barca kit, tying Spanish teens twice his size into knots. The tape was mind-boggling. But Messi almost seemed mythical. He was an outsider, almost a foreigner to a U-17 team comprising kids from exclusively Argentine clubs. So Tocalli didn’t take him to the 2003 U-17 World Championship—where, ironically, Tocalli’s Argentina lost to Spain.
Spanish soccer, meanwhile, was hyper-aware of Messi, and had begun recruiting him. With Spanish citizenship, which he’d obtain in 2005 after five years of residence, he could have played for La Roja.
Messi, though, wanted to play alongside his idols. He held out for Argentina call-ups, which soon came.
What he never could’ve imagined was that, despite his longing and his extraterrestrial talent, and despite the embrace of his teammates, many of his countrymen would come to see him as something of a foreigner as well.
They acquainted with him solely through TV screens as he burst into the Barca spotlight. They marveled at a still-diminutive kid who played, in the words of teammates, like “an alien.” But when they heard the comparisons to Diego Maradona, their World Cup-winning God, they demurred. Maradona was excruciatingly Argentine and human, a pibe who’d risen from poverty to greatness, with flaws and brash charm. Messi, on the other hand, seemed unknowable. He played exquisitely but dispassionately, without that customary Argentine fire. He seemed … Spanish.
They celebrated and welcomed him as he justified the Maradona comparisons on La Liga fields and Champions League stages across Europe. They marveled as he scored Maradona-esque goals and won a virtually undisputed Ballon d’Or at age 22, his first of seven. But they never quite identified with him. So they doubted him. As he failed to replicate his Barcelona brilliance with the Argentina national team, they questioned him. Did he really care for his country? Why didn’t he sing the anthem? Why did he always look so indifferent, so unenthused?
A Copa America on home soil in 2011 brought the first tipping point. Amid a two-year goal drought in competitive games for Argentina, after a couple dire group-stage draws, pundits and zealous hinchas turned on Messi. They whistled and booed him. They chanted “Diego.” They cursed and called on him to quit.
The vitriol stung Messi and exacerbated pressure. He’d vomit before and even during games, a habit that many attributed to nerves and anxiety. Contrary to popular opinion, he yearned to satisfy his nation’s insatiable appetite for soccer success. He was desperate. “Argentina is my country, my family, my way of expressing myself,” he said in 2014. “I would change all my records to make the people in my country happy.”
But he couldn’t. Inexplicably, he just couldn’t. He lost a World Cup final and two Copa America finals in three consecutive years, 2014-16. After the third, a penalty-shootout loss to Chile, he crumbled in despair. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen him,” his teammate and gran amigo Sergio Agüero said that night in New Jersey. And in a distraught locker room, Messi gave up. “I tried so hard to be [a] champion with Argentina, but it didn’t happen, I couldn’t do it,” he told reporters. So he did quit. “It hurts me more than anyone,” he said, “but it’s evident that this is not for me.”
Then, for two months, he stewed on the decision.
“I seriously thought of leaving,” he’d eventually say.
“But I love this country and this shirt too much,” he continued. It had turned on him, but he couldn’t possibly turn on his people. “Hopefully,” he said in a statement announcing his return, “we can give them something to cheer about soon.”
Leo is liberated
Something funny happened in those days and weeks after Messi’s impulsive retirement. Argentina, which had essentially distanced itself from him—for years, there were very few murals or tributes or posters of Messi even in Rosario, his birthplace—realized that it needed him, and began reciprocating his love.
“Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him,” President Mauricio Macri preached to the people.
“No te vayas, Leo,” fans pleaded. Don’t go.
Skepticism lingered, though. After a calamitous 2018 World Cup, Messi again considered walking away. By 2019 and 2021, vitriol had mellowed into resignation. Hate had become acceptance, almost sorrow. Argentines grew to understand that “his aim is to bring the Cup home,” as Messi’s mother, Celia Cuccittini, said in 2018. “It’s one of his biggest desires. We see him suffer and cry at times. He is the first who wants to bring the Cup with him.”
They grew to understand that their pain, their exasperation, their lagrimas—tears—were also his.
And then, in 2021, he triggered a new type of tears. Argentina beat Brazil in the Copa America final, for its first major trophy since 1993. Messi fell to his knees, then levitated into the air, hoisted by his indebted teammates, as an Argentine commentator sermonized: “Twenty-eight years later! Thank you God! Thank you Diego! Thank you MESSI!”
That triumph liberated Messi. It also rekindled Argentine dreams. It stimulated a potent cocktail of hope and pride that accompanied the team to Qatar and exploded back home. You could see it, hear it, feel it in the arms that pulsed and the songs that rang. You could feel it in the eruptions on rooftops and even at airports; in the streets that emptied as the country ground to a halt for each World Cup game, then filled with glee after each win.
They filled with an intense desire that words couldn’t really explain, that led sane humans to commandeer tanks and climb streetlights; to summit statues and gallop across the tops of buses, all to celebrate a semifinal, dreams possibly coming true. It led grandmas into dance circles and priests onto the shoulders of strangers, with replica World Cup trophies in their hands.
It’s the same desire that once fueled the fury and aggravated the pressure that overwhelmed Messi. But here, throughout a cathartic month, it propelled him, and he them. Here, a country and its long-lost son sang and endeavored and believed as one. The people roared. He scored. And they chorused in unison as they went: “Muchaaachoooossss, now we’re excited again.”
They sang and sang, relentlessly on Sunday, throughout the greatest final ever played, and when it ended, they climbed atop whatever they could, into the sky. Back home, from Buenos Aires to the tiniest of Argentine villages, as Messi rode on the shoulders of teammates into lore, revelers spilled into streets, euphoric.
There were millions of them who, over the past four weeks, felt something, “something nobody can take from you,” as Sofia Martínez, an Argentine television reporter, told Messi after his semifinal masterpiece. She paused her interview to deliver a message on behalf of the millions, one that struck Messi and swept sincere emotion across his face.
“You’ve resonated with every single Argentine,” Martínez told him, even before he booked the World Cup trophy’s trip home. “Seriously. There’s no kid who doesn’t have your team [shirt], no matter if it’s an original or fake one. Truly, you have made a mark on everyone’s life. And that, for me, is bigger than any World Cup. No one can take that from you. And this is my gratitude for the great happiness you bring to so many people. I seriously hope you take these words into your heart.”