By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
The news that Lionel Messi is to be the latest captain of the Argentine national team may come as a surprise to Spanish and European audiences, who would not have pegged the virtuoso No. 10 as a natural leader. For those fluent in the country’s football history, however, the intentions of Alejandro Sabella make perfect sense.
In electing ‘La Pulga’ as the successor to Javier Mascherano, the new coach is sending out a clear statement that this is his team. Messi will ape the juggling of creative and motivational responsibilities that Juan Sebastian Veron handled with such aplomb during the trainer’s time at Estudiantes, a move immediately rewarded with the Copa Libertadores title in 2009.
Spiky and a born contrarian, Veron is neither a stereotypical captain nor a similar personality to the Barcelona man, but with his talent and shining example he drove the La Plata club onto continental and, in 2010, domestic success with the Apertura championship.
To discover Sabella’s real motive for the switch though, one must delve a little deeper; namely, to that unforgettable World Cup triumph of 1986. And the man wearing the armband during that glorious campaign? Albiceleste talisman, and the player with whom Lio will never stop being compared, Diego Armando Maradona.
Master & Apprentice | Diego was the first to hand Lio the armband, during the World Cup
Looking back 25 years later, it is easy to forget just how much of a risk Carlos Bilardo took in making the erstwhile talisman his representative on the field. ‘El Narigon’ had to oust no less of a figure than Daniel Passarella, one of the greatest centre-backs ever to play the game and an uncompromising leader in defence and across the park.
‘El Kaiser’ was 33 at the time, but still at the top of his game. 1986 though was to be the end of his international career, as he missed the finals in Mexico and left the team claiming that collusion between coach and new captain forced him out of the picture. It is somewhat ironic then that Sabella wishes to follow the same road, given that the pair were coaching colleagues for years - Daniel is even the godfather to the ex-Sheffield United man’s first-born son.
No matter what happened off-field, there is no doubt that handing Maradona the armband proved a master-stroke. Diego was an inspiration through deeds rather than words, and enjoyed the greatest individual World Cup campaign of all-time to lead a decent if unspectacular Argentina to glory. Four years later the captain came within a German penalty of repeating the triumph once more as the figurehead of a less than scintillating team.
This is the example, and what an example, that an entire nation wishes their new hero to follow. The captaincy will bond Messi closer to a country which still views his Barcelona-based adolescence with suspicion, and give him the chance to prove his patriotism to a public which just two years ago were mischievously asking if he would not rather line up alongside Xavi and Sergio Busquets in a friendly against the Catalan national team. Just as Maradona lifted his game to dizzying new heights as the figurehead of the Seleccion, so Lionel would do so as the No. 10 and leader of the South American giants in the next World Cup in Brazil.
|"We should be thankful that we have Messi, the best player in the world and who loves to play with the Seleccion"
- Sabella underlines "La Pulga's importance
Of course these are the biggest of shoes for Messi to try and fill, even if the players he has around him as Argentina prepare for 2014 look far more accomplished than Maradona’s class of 86 and 90. The softly spoken Rosario-native does not have the arrogance and bombast of his former coach, and time will only tell if the captaincy lifts him to greatness with the national team or ends up consuming him.
There is also the very valid argument that the 24-year-old barely needs the extra pressure. Those of us present in the Copa America were witness to the immense weight that he carries on his shoulders back in Argentina, enough to crush the average man. Messi is already required to be the Albiceleste’s saviour, creator and leading goal-scorer, and what we saw in the Copa raised serious questions over whether such expectations are just too much for one man, no matter how talented, to bear.
For now though let us put doubts to one side, and savour the thought of the best player in the world leading out Argentina in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, which start in earnest this October against Chile. Because if there is one man in world football who can hope to live up to ‘El Diego’, and cement his place in Criollo folklore with his performances on the pitch, it is the little maestro with a giant responsibility.
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