Sports

How Messi Went From Beloved to Hated—and Back—in Argentina

Messi raises his hands to his mouth as if to blow a kiss.
Lionel Messi celebrates during Argentina’s World Cup semifinal win against Croatia on Tuesday. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Jasmine Garsd is a reporter and a podcast host over at NPR, but the thing you really need to know about her is that she love soccer. “I consider myself a very rational, scientific person,” she said, “but when the World Cup rolls around, I become extremely obsessive and superstitious.”

As she does every World Cup, Garsd is rooting for Argentina, her home country. When she says she’s superstitious, she means it: She has trouble watching the game if it gets too close. She also has these lucky socks she wears when Argentina’s playing; they’ve got avocados on them.

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On Tuesday, Argentina beat Croatia to advance to the World Cup final, which will be played Sunday. Garsd says that while her home team operates as a unit, everyone knows there is one player whose grace and focus will be center stage any time Argentina takes the pitch. That player is Lionel Messi. Especially since Messi has said this World Cup will be his last.

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“I saw him play live in a stadium in New Jersey. He was playing against the U.S. I was on a date, a first date, and I went really crazy because when Messi turns it on, it’s magic,” Garsd said. “So, I was on this date with this guy, and I was just going crazy. And at one point, I look over and this guy is looking at me a little horrified. I’m like, If you can’t handle me at my soccer worst, you don’t deserve me at my civilian best.”

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Messi’s career has been one of the most storied in soccer history. He’s won the Ballon d’Or more times than any other player, but he’s never won a World Cup. So Messi has something to prove right now. On a recent episode of What Next, I spoke with Garsd about how Lionel Messi got to Qatar—and why so many fans are rooting for him. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: Let’s start from the beginning. One of the things I learned from listening to your podcast, The Last Cup, is that in Argentina there’s actually a word for a soccer star like Lionel Messi: pibe. Can you describe what a pibe is?

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Jasmine Garsd: Un pibe is a boy. And it’s like a neighborhood kid, an everyday kid. The soccer dream has always been known as el sueño del pibe—the kid’s dream. It’s a dream of becoming a soccer superstar. It’s a dream about social mobility. It’s a dream of getting out of poverty. It would be like Hoop Dreams in the U.S.

How did Messi embody that dream?

He was a kid from a working-class background. His dad worked at a steel factory. His mom cleaned houses for extra money. And he was extraordinary on the field. And the dream is that you’re so extraordinary that you’re going to save your family. You’re going to make it big. You’re going to get everyone out of their station in life. It’s a dream about your countrymen adoring you and singing your name; you’re going to become a star.

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The thing about Messi is there are all these moments that are so cinematic. The neighborhood soccer club coach tells a story about seeing Messi as a 4-year-old on a dirt field. Can you tell that story?

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Messi, like so many Latin American kids, is raised in part by his grandmother. And they keep going to watch soccer. He’s like 4 or 5, and they’re watching on the sidelines. There’s this tiny little neighborhood club and the coach is very stressed out because he’s missing one kid. So he looks out into the crowd and he sees this tiny little kid, and he says to the grandmother, “Hey, can I can I put your kid in the field? He doesn’t have to do anything. I just need a body. He can just stand there.”

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And so Messi goes out into the field and he just stands there, and the ball goes past him, goes past him. Then at some point, the ball lands at his feet and something clicks, and he takes it and he dribbles past the entire field.

Messi got really good really fast. But partially because he had so much potential, he ended up leaving Argentina. So talk to me a little bit about how Messi ended up in Barcelona.

Interestingly, in the mid-’90s, European soccer starts being really, really profitable. And so at some point it clicks for the European teams and for agents: We need to start importing Latin American and then African talent as well. And they also start focusing on really young kids.

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With the Messis, there starts to be a lot of back-and-forth. Barça is very impressed with this kid, but they’re not sure. This is a big moment of tension. He was a phenom in soccer, but he also had a pretty serious medical condition. Messi wasn’t growing. He had a hormone deficiency, and it’s treatable, but it’s very expensive. This kid not only required being taken to Spain from Argentina with his dad, he required a hormonal treatment. It was a really big investment.

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So what clinched it for them? What changed their mind?

One of the coaches I spoke to said, “When you saw him play, you realized this kid is going to change everything.”

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The timing of Barça’s offer was good for the Messi family. A contract with the team wouldn’t just help pay for their son’s treatments; it would also help them escape political instability within Argentina.

Around 2000, 2001, Argentina is hitting a desperate economic crisis—20 or 23 percent unemployment at some point. So they realize things are getting really bad here. And they do make a decision to go to Spain, where they have this offer from a Spanish club.

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Leaving Argentina is a decision a lot of people made. It’s just that Messi had this opportunity.

In some ways, Messi’s story is also the story of Argentina’s economic collapse and of Latin America’s economic woes.

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So Messi leaves Argentina, goes to Spain. What did his career look like at Barça once he got there?

Oh, he was brilliant. Messi understood by age 12 or 13 that he could not fail, because the entire family  depended on him. So he would train all the time. All he did was train. And according to people who know him, then he would go home and lock himself in his room and cry by himself. Then he would go train.

Why was he crying? Was he crying because he missed home?

He missed home. He missed his friends. He missed his family. And his life had just become training. It was very difficult for him.

But all that training paid off. It didn’t take long for commentators to start comparing Messi to a different Argentine soccer legend, Diego Maradona.

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He starts rising, meteorically. In his first game, his debut with Barça, you see him go out onto the field in a uniform that’s a little bit too big for him. He’s playing Porto FC, a Portuguese team, and he doesn’t score a goal, but you can hear the commentators saying he’s like a small Maradona. He’s amazing. People just immediately see that Barça has discovered a diamond in the rough, and he is going to make them legendary.

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So Messi basically gets trained up in the Spanish way of playing soccer. But he still wants to play for Argentina’s national team. How does he work this straddling between two countries, two selves?

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It’s this constant identity crisis. The coaches we spoke to on the podcast say that when he arrived, he was excellent. He was very much a pibe, a South American boy, meaning he was very individualistic. He played super aggressively. He improvised, like a jazz musician on the field. That’s our style. And he wouldn’t pass it at first. In Spain, they’re like, Listen, you got to pass it.

This is a team sport.

European soccer is a lot more orchestral. It’s very orchestrated and synchronized. Latin American soccer has always been very much like jazz, improvisation. There were even fights early on because he won’t pass it, and he’s talented enough to get away with it to some degree. But they’re like, Listen, you don’t just make goals. Make goals happen. Pass it to your teammates, and let them make goals, too. Then when he goes back to Argentina to play on the national squad, they’re like, What’s up with all the passing? His first coach told us he played like a Spaniard. He didn’t have this do-or-die ethos anymore.

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It wasn’t just the passing that bothered Argentine players and fans. It was the losing. Because while Lionel Messi was a superstar in Europe, his magic seemed to fade when he came back to play at home. The 2011 Copa America was particularly memorable.

At this point, Messi is a superstar in Barcelona, and people around the world have Messi fever. And he comes home in 2011 for the Copa America. It was a big deal because Argentina was hosting it. And it’s a disaster.

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There’s this one game against Colombia. And it’s terrible. The Argentina team is just stumbling around. They’re fighting with each other. They take the ball from each other. Allegedly, there was a fight in the locker room. Tens of thousands of fans are booing him.

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In his home country.

In his home state, in front of his family and his girlfriend. It’s the ultimate humiliation. To me, 2011 was like the ultimate: How can this be possible? How can he do so badly with Argentina?

And it’s weird because he’s winning so much in Spain. But then when he comes back to Argentina he seemed kind of lost.

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The style was really different. For a very long time, Argentina would create teams of superstars, superheroes of soccer. But a lot of amazing individuals does not make a team. A team makes a team—people playing together.

Did Argentineans blame Messi for all the losses?

Oh, 100 percent. The idea was: You’re the best in the world. You do magical things with Barça for the Europeans, and then you come back and you can barely perform for us. Deep down inside there was some hurt. Soccer is really symbolic. You see it with the World Cup. There’s all these symbols and stories that have to do with a lot more than the sport. Messi was this kid who was super talented, and we lost him because of this tragic economic situation. And he could be brilliant somewhere else, and then he would come home and he wasn’t that good.

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Has Messi himself ever spoken about what it was like to code-switch in this way, go from playing European soccer to Argentinean soccer and to feel so much heat from people in his home country?

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He hasn’t talked about the code-switching. His coaches have talked a lot about it. He has talked about how devastating it was for him to be critiqued and torn down in his home country. He’s talked about how much it hurt him, how angry it made him, how upsetting it was. This was what he wanted the most—to be recognized back home.

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2016 seemed to be a breaking point for Messi in Argentina. What happened?

They get to the final for the Copa America against Chile, and he misses a really important penalty. It’s very hard to watch him after that penalty kick. He’s just staring into space, sobbing silently. And you can tell this was his dream to come back home. And he might not get to. And he realizes that.

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After that disastrous Copa America final in 2016, Messi announced that he was done playing for Argentina. Reporters asked about his dream of winning with the Argentinian national team; all he said was, “I searched for it, it was what I wanted the most, and it was not given to me. Now it’s over.” After years of picking on Messi—ripping him apart for letting them down—you’d think Argentinians would be glad to see him go. Instead, his resignation shocked his home country.

There was a national meltdown. People were like, Please come back. Some subway stations had changed their digital signs to “Please don’t leave us.” It was kind of a come-to-Jesus moment. People realized we really took this too far.

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Kids were posting these viral videos where they’re crying and begging him to come back. 

Soccer is kind of a religion, and it’s almost like you’re a kid and you’re being told Santa Claus isn’t coming here anymore. It’s devastating.

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It’s a two-way journey, though, because Messi had to make his journey, but also Argentina had to make a journey toward Messi of acceptance.

What was the journey for Argentina?

It was understanding a different kind of hero. He wasn’t the hero we were used to. We were used to heroes like Maradona.

He won the World Cup in 1986.

He was a soccer legend, and he was a tough guy. He was slick. He was a smooth talker. He came from really dire poverty. He was a brown kid. He was from the outskirts of society in Argentina.

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And my understanding is that he carried the team on his back. He shot a lot of the goals.

He was the quintessential South American player. He was loud and boisterous, and he was also really problematic, but he was a different type of hero. Our journey was also understanding that there’s different kinds of heroes.

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I was reading that Argentinean feminists have kind of embraced Messi as a more team-oriented player, and as opposed to this individual who’s callous, rough, and controversial.

I’m so glad you brought that up, because I think that this iteration of the team, our current team, is really being embraced by feminists because it’s seen as less toxic masculinity. You have the goalie, Dibu Martinez, who talks very openly in every press conference about his therapist. Messi is a very respectful, soft-spoken family guy. He’s very wholesome.

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It wasn’t until last year at another Copa America that Lionel Messi really proved that his way of playing soccer could win. Basically the whole team had been rebuilt around Messi. So what happened in this game against Brazil? I know you were watching it from Brooklyn. What did you see, and how did it change how you thought about Messi?

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I was really checked out. I was pretty fed up with the Messi hatred. I thought it was embarrassing in its nastiness. And I was also just tired of this losing streak.

So you weren’t expecting much?

No, I was at the bar, flirting with some guy. I was like, I’m not going to pay attention to this. Also, Brazil is formidable. Their team plays beautiful soccer. They’re just a machine. And so everyone assumed, myself included, they’re going to run over us with, like, a lawnmower. It’s not going to be fun to watch.

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And almost immediately we scored. And that’s when I tuned in. But it was actually such a team effort. Argentina used to have this thing, which was: Pass it to Messi. He’ll fix this somehow. In this game, the other team members were scoring and creating goal opportunities. I was like, Oh, we’re playing differently. And perhaps more importantly. They looked like they were having fun. For a very long time, watching Messi and the team play, it was like watching an unhappy marriage. And now they were having fun. They were ribbing each other. They were joking. They were smiling. Clearly, the vibe had shifted.

So we’re talking in the middle of the 2022 World Cup, a year and change after this victory for Messi and Argentina. Can you update me on how Argentina’s doing?

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Well, we were off to a really rocky start. That game against Saudi, it was a historic upset.

Yeah. They lost.

It was insane. I was watching at 5 in the morning and just screaming at the TV set: How is this happening? And then Argentina recovered its footing. That game against Saudi really scared the Argentine squad because we left that group on the top. I think we regained footing.

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Your podcast is called The Last Cup because there’s so much speculation that this will be the final go-round for Messi. That seems to make this a really important set of games for him. Like impossible pressure.

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There’s a lot of pressure, but he’s reached a point of maturity—and his fans have reached a point of a maturity—of understanding that what he needed to achieve he’s achieved, which is people in his home country love him. And there’s no doubt that he’s one of the best players in the world.

Do you think people in his home country will stand by him even if he loses?

Yeah, I think he’s reached that point. Will he ever be this religious-like figure, like Diego Maradona? No. Madonna represented something completely different. And it’s kind of apples and oranges. But people love him and they appreciate him, and I think they’re going to stand by him. His journey has been completed, whether or not he brings back a cup.

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