Messi proves unstoppable – except with Argentina

After another breathtaking performance and four-goal haul from

Lionel Messi, Argentine fans are again asking if the world’s best

soccer player will ever play for his national team like he does for

Barcelona.

Messi’s four goals against Arsenal on Tuesday took Barcelona

into the Champions League semifinals, tying Rivaldo as the club’s

leading scorer in the competition with 25 goals. Messi also leads

the Spanish league with 26 goals in 27 games.

But with the World Cup kicking off in just over two months,

Argentina coach Diego Maradona has yet to find a way to get Messi

to reproduce his seemingly unstoppable club form for the national

team.

“Argentine fans believe there are two Messis,” newspaper La

Nacion said. “One in Barcelona who plays outstandingly well, who

dribbles and makes things happen; and one in the national side who

can’t develop his full potential, who seems to drag that magical

left foot behind him and loses the ball, who shoots and scores only

occasionally.”

The 22-year-old Messi, nicknamed “The Flea” for his

lightweight frame and elusive style, twisted and tormented the

Arsenal defense with a dizzying array of skills. His unstoppable

performances at the club level, however, contrast with his hesitant

play for Maradona’s misfiring national team, which scraped into the

World Cup with South America’s last automatic qualification.

“Now the problem is Maradona’s,” said sports newspaper

Ole.

According to Ole, Maradona wastes Messi’s talents by making him

play a style that relies on counterattacks, while Barcelona coach

Josep Guardiola prefers a possession-based style that suits Messi

to perfection.

So how much is Maradona to blame for Messi’s lackluster form

with Argentina?

Maradona was arguably the most naturally gifted athlete to play

the game and helped Argentina win the World Cup in 1986. FIFA later

recognized him and Brazilian great Pele as the best players of all

time.

If Messi keeps putting in performances like Tuesday night, he

could soon knock both those greats off their perch.

Could Maradona be jealous of Messi? Everything seems to suggest

that’s not the case.

If Messi leads Argentina to a World Cup triumph, criticism of

Maradona as a coach will evaporate and his position as the idol of

Argentine soccer will be assured.

“I hope Messi is the best player at the World Cup,” Maradona

said in a recent interview.

For now, opinion in Argentina is that Messi has a long way to go

to reach Maradona’s heights as a player.

“Maradona could do more with an orange than Messi can do with a

football,” real estate employee Daniel Rivas told The Associated

Press. “But as a coach, Maradona is a disaster and Messi is the

only one who can save him in South Africa.”

Maradona was selected to lead Argentina despite having no

coaching qualifications and only the limited experience of leading

Racing and Mandiyu back in the 1990s, with a total record of three

wins, 12 draws and eight losses.

The former Golden Boy replaced Alfio Basile, who resigned as

national coach following a 1-0 loss to Chile that left Argentina’s

qualification hopes in jeopardy.

Under Maradona’s management, performances have stagnated and the

side only squeezed into the tournament with a 1-0 win against

Uruguay in Montevideo last October.

Cesar Menotti, coach of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning team,

said Messi suffered from the weight of expectations.

“Everybody expects him to lead the team, provide passes, score

goals, do everything,” Menotti said. “But the team is still not

functioning in the way that is expected. Argentina runs around a

lot because the team plays badly. That’s why they run so much. But

this is a football team, not a marathon. Messi in Barcelona plays;

Messi in the national side runs around.”

Messi has also failed to win the hearts of fans, who see him

more as Catalan than Argentine.

Messi arrived in Barcelona at age 12 after the Spanish club

agreed to pay for hormonal treatment to aid his growth – unlike

Newell’s Old Boys of Rosario, the Argentine team where Messi played

in the junior ranks.

“Messi has been accused of not singing the national anthem, of

being a Catalan, of not feeling pride at wearing the Argentina

shirt and of not showing the same attitude as he does in

Barcelona,” said La Nacion.

Messi barely speaks to the Argentine press, and when he does his

comments are bland and his shyness is evident.

“I get angry that they say I don’t feel pride in the Argentine

shirt,” Messi said recently with Spanish newspaper El Pais.