Mythbuster: Messi isn't as loved in Argentina as Barcelona

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Lionel Messi Argentina Brazil
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Talk of supposed indifference towards the record-breaking Rosario native in his home nation has dogged him since the very start of his career

He does not 'feel the shirt'. He never sings the anthem. When the going gets tough, he goes missing. Deep down, he would rather be back in Barcelona than slogging for his country.

All of the above accusations at one time or another have been thrown at Lionel Messi when the best football player on the planet lines up on international duty.

Despite scoring more goals than anyone else in Albiceleste colours and working tirelessly, albeit fruitlessly, to deliver glory, the lack of trophies with Argentina is still thrown at the Barca wizard as a counter-argument to those who claim he is the greatest of all time.

Such opinions, moreover, are held to be common amongst his own compatriots. Messi, they say, will never be adored with the same passion as an idol like Diego Maradona, a real patriot who put his body on the line and, most importantly, delivered World Cup success. He is a Catalan idol rather than a hero in his own nation.

The superstar will never achieve legend status in Argentina, according to the supposed wisdom of Buenos Aires taxi drivers and barflies, because having left the nation so young he does not even understand what it means to be Argentine. It is a compelling tale: the only problem is, it is completely false.

One accompanying myth holds that Messi went as far as to flirt with taking up a place in the Spain team before ultimately plumping for the Albiceleste, a prospect the player himself dismisses out of hand.

“I never doubted for a second,” he told TyC Sports on his decision to represent his home nation.

“We did everything. We used to send videos and things of mine all the time so that I would be recognised [in Argentina] and have the chance to be seen, to see if I could get a call-up or not.”

There was a time nevertheless when Leo's allegiances did come under the microscope.

Lionel Messi Diego Maradona Argentina PS

His stunning early form for Argentina hit a snag in 2009 when Juan Roman Riquelme, the perfect creative partner-in-crime for the youngster, retired from international duty amid a falling-out with coach Diego Maradona.

As well as scoring goals, he was expected to fulfil the role of galvanising a side that desperately lacked the spark provided by the Boca Juniors idol.

A series of disappointing showings followed as Argentina spluttered to World Cup qualification in South Africa. Rain-drenched warhorse Martin Palermo and Maradona himself were the heroes when passage was secured, with Messi taking a back-seat that even at that point in his career was unfamiliar.

“I want to talk very seriously with Leo because he has to take off once and for all,” Maradona fired to reporters following that heart-stopping qualification campaign. “We have the best player in the world and he deserves all our support.

“At Barcelona, he grabs the ball and dribbles past four players; here, it's harder for him.”

Messi finished that torrid year by pulling out of a December friendly against Catalunya, which his team-mates lost 4-2; on that occasion, there were no shortage of snide voices that suggested he would have been more comfortable lining up for his 'real' home nation.

What had really been missing, though, was the right man on the bench.

After suffering through the tenures of Maradona and Sergio Batista, both World Cup-winners in 1986 but limited in their coaching abilities, Messi was reborn under Alejandro Sabella and, now wearing the captain's armband, launched into an inspirational run of performances that culminated in his dragging Argentina to within minutes of glory in 2014 against mighty Germany.

Only the most recalcitrant haters continued to question his loyalties after that gut-wrenching final, the spotlight instead falling on Gonzalo Higuain's wayward shooting and Rodrigo Palacio's decision to slice his shot over Manuel Neuer rather than down low.

Lionel Messi Argentina Germany PS

When further disappointment followed in consecutive Copas America, he remained above criticism, even after missing a penalty in 2016 and choking back the tears post-match as he announced his retirement.

If there were any doubt left over Messi's standing with the Argentine public, it was dispelled in the aftermath of that decision. The player received constant pleas to return to international duty, with even President Mauricio Macri phoning him in a bid to change his mind.

“We agreed to talk again, I hope he doesn't abandon us because it is a gift from God to have the best player in the world,” the head of state told DPA. When he finally did reverse his decision, it was greeted with widespread celebrations.

Perhaps it is true that Messi will never be worshipped in his native lands in the same manner as his former coach, who during the past season on the bench at Gimnasia received standing ovations at every opposing stadium in the country and even received plush leather 'thrones' to host his World Cup-winning derriere.

Maradona's passion, fury and outspoken nature strikes an immediate chord with fans; Leo, on the other hand, comes across as retiring, diffident, dull even, making him an easier figure to admire than adore.

That might just be changing, however.

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The No. 10 probably hit peak popularity back home at the 2019 Copa America thanks to his baiting of referees, CONMEBOL and arch-rivals Brazil, winning scores of new fans with his Maradona-esque assertions of a nefarious plot against Argentina – not to mention that angry face-off with Chile's pocket-sized enforcer Gary Medel, and even a couple of sightings of the great man belting out the anthem at the top of his lungs.

If he can keep the rage coming and, even better, win a title or two in the coming years, Messi might just end up dethroning Diego on the Argentina pantheon.

But there is no doubt that, after those early doubts, he is unanimously considered as one of the nation's sporting greats. And rightly so.

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