Lionel Messi is a household name all over the world, even in the least football nation, but his image in Argentina is far from that of an underground king who is yet to wear a crown.
Despite his numerous accolades in the round leather game, Messi’s football achievements with Barcelona will never compare to Diego Armando Maradona’s 1986 World Cup feat. This global soccer accomplishment is the only setback on Messi’s induction into Argentina’s list of All-time Greats, and until the Barca ace engraves his name in gold at a global soccer tournament, hopefully in Russia 2018, that chance may be lost forever. Every Argentine, both critics and fans, are expecting this elusive miracle from the famous No. 10 and it’s now or never.
An Associate Press (AP) reporter in Rosario, Messi’s hometown, painted a sordid picture of how the world-famous footballer is regarded in Argentina. Even in a scanty bar owned by the Argentine captain’s family, the journalist wrote, a tennis match was playing on mute while Barcelona had a live match. The channel played until a German couple who had been to Rosario on pilgrimage passed by and requested to watch La Liga. The Germans were touring their idol’s native city so, calling them die-hard fans would honestly be an understatement.
Messi probably understands how much his compatriots covet the World Cup trophy and he definitely has eye on it, however, at this point, the feeling in Rosario and Argentina is that of gloominess, disappointment and anger. The German couple expressed shock that they couldn’t find any Messi statues, museums or billboards. There’s nothing at all to commemorate the football legend’s growing achievements.
If it were in Egypt or Portugal, for example, there would be monuments celebrating the football star like his contemporaries: Mohamed Sala and Cristiano Ronaldo, among many others.
Over there in Argentina, football-mad fans are divided between Maradona and Messi. The comparison never ends. One word that is often heard in the soccer-loving country is “exitisimo,” which means “nothing is worth celebrating than winning.” By this, they refer to the World Cup.
Admittedly, it could be decades before such dreams are rekindled if Messi and his teammates fail to deliver in Russia, where the 5-time Ballon d’Or may likely play his last global tournament.
According to the German tourists, the only sign of Messi in Rosario was a young boy wearing Argentina’s national team jersey. The white and blue stripes shirt with No. 10 and Messi’s name emblazoned on it was, in fact, a purchase made during the 2014 World Cup in Rio, Brazil.
“People follow Messi and I do,” Leandro Inile said, “but it’s not like Maradona.
“There’s not much of anything Messi-related here,” the young man continued, swiping beads of sweat from his forehead. “There should be…Perhaps Rosarino, are not very demonstrative like Brazilians, who like to dance and show their feelings.”
Rosario is a river port and one of the three largest cities in Argentina. It is located on the bank of Parana River which lies about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, and the city is famous, not just as home to revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevera, but for its reputation as the country’s agricultural hub. Some of Argentina’s best coaches and professional footballers are from Rosario but natives say only two football clubs really matter – Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys, its eternal rival which, unfortunately, is Messi’s childhood club.
Writing in Messi’s official biography, Guillem Balague explains, “You breathe football everywhere in Rosario, but, curiously, the air doesn’t smell of Messi. There are hardly any photos, or pictures, nor even advertisements depicting Leo.”
Everyone in Rosario knows about Messi but they don’t have much stories to tell of the football icon. He is so gloated that people there find it repulsive to see his face painted anywhere. Balague argues that the reason could be that Rosarinos love to respect the footballer’s “low profile.”
“When you ask him [Messi] what his favorite memories are, he will always be in doubt,” Balague added. “Sometimes he says ‘My home, my neighborhood, where I was born.’”
One thing Messi’s neighbours unanimously agreed is that “Messi’s are a humble, decent family,” and that the footballer was “a good kid with great love for soccer.” His favorite food has been the same” milanesa a la napolitana.” He travels home quite often and has been sighted shopping around town or riding a bike like he used to do as a teen. When he scores and points two fingers to the cloud, it’s always in celebration of his grandmother, Celia, who gave him the needed support to become a professional footballer.
With Celia smiling down on, it won’t matter what Rosarinos think about Messi – with or without a World Cup glory.