Lionel Messi: Argentina Ka Sachin Tendulkar


Lionel Messi: Argentina Ka Sachin Tendulkar

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Whether it’s football or the Mumbai weather, a lot can happen in a fortnight. Even the best-laid plans can go awry – just ask the BMC or Lionel Messi. During the build-up to the tournament, this was supposed to be Messi’s world cup, after leading his team to the final last time around. Argentina was one of the favourites to lift the trophy. Messi had recently won the Golden Ball and had had another sensational year in front of goal for Barcelona.

And then, all that hard work went down the drain, just like BMC’s annual monsoon preparedness schemes.

Nine days, two quiet games, and a drubbing from Croatia into the World Cup, and Lionel Messi has gone from GOAT to one of the most vilified men in the world. As expected, there’s been an outpouring of grief and anger. Fans have switched sides faster than Indian politicians do after elections in a hung assembly. Twitter did what Twitter does best, asking Lionel Messi “to retire from international football”. Messi’s mom Celia Cuccittini said he has “suffered and cried” over criticism about his performance in the Iceland game in an interview with an Argentine TV station. “How can he miss a penalty?” fans around the world ask.

To which we ask, is it so unacceptable? Perhaps these are moments that tell us he’s human after all, prey to failure, like all of us. We are so used to seeing perfection that we often forget that even the likes of Lionel Messi, Virat Kohli, Usain Bolt, and Roger Federer are allowed to have an off day.

Lionel Messi is to Argentina what Sachin Tendulkar was to India in the ’90s – a man unfairly carrying the burden of an entire nation on his shoulders. Much like Sachin, Messi gets blamed individually for the failure of a group. Going by the criticism directed toward him, you’d think Messi is manager, goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, and attacker all rolled into one. When Sachin didn’t do well, the Indian team would invariably fold like a pack of cards, and the situation isn’t too different for Argentina’s all-time top goalscorer. When Messi has a quiet game, Argentina look more disjointed than India’s finance ministry.

The image of Messi rising from the pitch with a bloodied face in last year’s El Clasico, to drive Barcelona to victory, still burns bright in the memory.

Sachin Tendulkar, an extraordinary individual sportsman, was punching above his weight with an average team around him. That can’t be said about Messi, who is surrounded by incredibly talented players like Aguero, Di Maria, and Higuain. But what Argentina boasts in skill, is offset by disastrous team management through the years. Managers and coaches come and go like governors in BJP-ruled states. When Argentina shows up on the pitch, they can have the kind of coordination that the BJP and Shiv Sena have in Maharashtra.

But this embarrassingly gifted squad gets a pass when it comes to criticism, as one man becomes the fall guy for them every single time – their talismanic captain, Lionel Messi.

Argentina’s campaign is in tatters at the moment, and they need a big win against Nigeria. Once again, the pressure is on for the Barcelona superstar. With Ronaldo going ballistic for Portugal, the debate around the GOAT has once again made it to the tabloids and internet fora, with an argument being presented that Messi can’t do it for Argentina in the manner Ronaldo can for Portugal.

The whole world is waiting for Messi to shine, as he often has, every time he has been doubted throughout his career. The image of Messi rising from the pitch with a bloodied face in last year’s El Clasico, to drive Barcelona to victory over their hated rivals Real Madrid with two all-important goals, still burns bright in the memory. That is what great sportsmen do, they answer their critics on the pitch, on the field, in the only way they know how. It would only be fair that one of the all-time greats had his moment on the biggest stage, yet again.

Messi is successful at the international stage not because he plays for Argentina, but despite playing for Argentina. Messi might not be the hero Argentina deserves, but the one it desperately needs right now.