Why some Argentina fans still aren't sold on Lionel Messi

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BUENOS AIRES – Being the World Footballer of the Year four consecutive years and winning countless trophies for his club has made Argentina star Lionel Messi one of the most beloved players on the planet.

It's earned him endless adulation in Europe and a contract from FC Barcelona that's worth more than $20 million annually through 2018, according to Forbes.

In his homeland, however, Messi's popularity is not quite as all-encompassing as you might expect for a man many consider to be the best player in the world and named as such from 2009-2013.

Several of his peers and numerous soccer experts have pointed out that his legacy in these parts has been dented somewhat by the fact that he moved away from the country to join Barca in Spain at age 12, and has remained there ever since.

In a New York Times piece, writer Jeff Himmelman noted that the world's most famous living Argentine has a slight image problem; he is not seen as being Argentinean enough.

So is it true? Norberto Alonso, a former Argentina international midfielder, suggests as much.

Will Lionel Messi finally break through on the international level in Brazil? (AP)
Will Lionel Messi finally break through on the international level in Brazil? (AP)

"It is difficult for Messi," Alonso said to Yahoo Sports. "He went away when he was young so people do not see everything that he does. A little loss of familiarity creates a small divide."

More pressing, however, is that Argentina has not won the World Cup, or come particularly close to it, in the Messi era. The player was too young to make a real impact in 2006 but was already a living legend four years ago, yet was powerless to stop a 4-0 shellacking from Germany in the quarterfinal.

Given that Messi nowadays is only judged against the all-time legends of the sport, the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona, there is one glaring omission – the title of World Cup winner.

"He has won everything for Barcelona," said Sergio Genta, a former professional soccer player now working as a taxi driver in Buenos Aires. "But not yet for Argentina. All the great things we have seen from him have been on television."

Other stars of the national team like Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, all excelled in the Argentinean league, even if only briefly, before going on to greatness in Europe.

Although all of those players have at times, like Messi, struggled for form with the national team, none have had to deal with the same level of frustration from the fans. Maybe there remains a certain sense of suspicion about Messi, or maybe that is just the burden that comes with being arguably the best of your era, and maybe of all-time.

However, things have started to turn a little back into Messi's favor, in line – surprisingly - with a slight dip in form over the past season. Messi lost his World Footballer of the Year award to Cristiano Ronaldo this year, spent part of the season sidelined with injury and saw Barca miss out on winning the Spanish league and crash out in the Champions League quarterfinals.

That has led plenty of critics in Europe to highlight that Messi will enter the World Cup with more pressure on him than ever before and question whether his glittering career can truly be complete without the biggest prize of all.

Such comments may have been uttered in Argentina before, but the locals don't take kindly when they start flowing in from overseas.

"People just don't understand the relationship we have with him," said Argentina fan Axel Martinez at the team's final warm-up game, a 2-0 victory over Slovenia in La Plata on Saturday. "We have heard for years that Argentineans criticize him too much.

Lionel Messi waves to fans at the end of an international friendly against Trinidad and Tobago on June 4. (AP)
Lionel Messi waves to fans at the end of an international friendly against Trinidad and Tobago on June 4. (AP)

"In reality, it is our way of showing love and respect and affection for him. Other cultures maybe don't understand it. We actually don't like the criticism Messi has received in Europe over this past year. He has everyone behind him here."

That was certainly the case on the weekend. At La Plata the entire crowd, save for a small pocket of traveling Slovenian fans, chanted Messi's name during the first half - urging head coach Alejandro Sabella to bring him off the substitute bench despite pre-match assertions that the 26-year-old would only play around 35 minutes to keep him as fresh as possible.

They chanted it again, all 50,000 of them, when he finally came on early in the second half, sent onto the field as the fifth of five subs in a mass switch-out to maximize the drama.

And they roared it, sang it, screamed it and beamed with collective delight when he flicked home Argentina's second goal at 67 minutes after being set up by Di Maria and Aguero.

And then it strikes you. Argentineans might worry about Messi, be concerned that he will struggle again at the World Cup and not be his brilliant self. If he fails, some criticism will come, as it does and would for any other sporting star in any other country on the planet.

He may not be loved by every single Argentinean fan and yes, he is certainly overdue for a big performance at a World Cup.

But to listen to the crowd here, to see the billboards adorned with his image all over the capital city, to feel how much hope is vested in the diminutive forward with magical feet, dispels any notion that he is an outcast in this country's affections.

"It was magical," Messi said, when asked about the support for him against Slovenia, and indeed it was. Argentina now heads into the great unknown, the month-long gauntlet of fate and nerve and unpredictability that is the World Cup.

But of one thing there is no doubt: Lionel Messi goes to Brazil with the full support of Argentina behind him; from those who revere him, to those who have sometimes doubted him.