Messi can win over Argentine fans at Copa America
Believe it or not, Lionel Messi has something to prove.
He needs to show Argentine fans he’s the world’s greatest soccer
player when wearing the country’s famous blue-and-white shirt.
Messi starts romancing the crowds when Argentina opens the
three-and-a-half week Copa America – the South American
championship – against Bolivia on Friday.
Messi has rarely played with the same allure for Argentina as he
has for Barcelona – and never when it counts. Argentina exited last
year’s World Cup with a humiliating 4-0 loss in the quarterfinals
to Germany. Messi didn’t score during the entire tournament.
Everything is now set for Messi to excel. An elite power without
much recent success, Argentina is the host. Messi is coming off his
greatest season at Barcelona, and new coach Sergio Batista has his
players trying to mimic the Catalan team’s style of quick passes
and possession play.
”Messi is going to have a great Copa America,” Batista said.
”Having the best player in the world means a lot, and we’ll try to
make him comfortable so he produces his best. This is an enormous
Messi is an outsider at home. He left Argentina for Barcelona as
a youth player, spent his formative years in Spain and has never
played for one of his country’s famed clubs.
His personality also leaves many Argentines cold. He seldom
jokes around, seems uncomfortable speaking and lacks the charisma
of Diego Maradona. Known in Spanish as ”La Pulga” (The Flea),
Messi has yet to lift a trophy for his country of birth.
”It’s been awhile since Argentina has won an important title,”
Messi said. ”We need some joy for ourselves and our fans.”
Carlos Tevez is likely to be the other main scoring threat for
Argentina. Known affectionately as ”Carlitos,” he’s the country’s
most popular player and is the opposite of Messi. Tevez starred for
Boca Juniors, grew up poor in a Buenos Aires shantytown and never
Argentina’s last major international title was in 1993, the Copa
America. The last of its two World Cup titles was in 1986, and its
club scene is a mess.
River Plate, which has won more league titles than anyone, was
relegated to the second division last week, sparking riots between
hooligans and 2,200 police. The area around River Plate’s
Monumental Stadium – where the Copa America final will be played
July 24 – turned into a smoldering war zone and was closed for
several days while a prosecutor opened an investigation.
The club said this week it has begun making repairs after
hooligans ransacked concession areas, ripped out seats and smashed
fixtures in toilets.
”The way the stadium was left was shocking,” prosecutor
Gustavo Galante said.
Security officials say 2,000 police have been assigned to
Friday’s opening match between Argentina and Bolivia.
On the field, Brazil is still Argentina’s biggest worry.
The Brazilians have defeated Argentina in the past two Copa
America finals, and have won four of the last five titles.
Argentina is a slight favorite this time, adding even more
Brazil, which was also knocked out of the World Cup in the
quarterfinals, is missing Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Ronaldinho and
Adriano. This team is rebuilding and will be led by youngsters such
as Neymar, Alexandre Pato, Lucas and Paulo Henrique Ganso.
Argentina and Brazil seem certain to advance from the group
stage, and the real action will start in the quarterfinals of July
16 and 17.
Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Colombia are considered long shots,
with Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela given little chance.
Also included are Mexico and Costa Rica, which are playing as
invited teams to increase the field to 12. Both have arrived with
youth teams instead of the senior sides that played in the recent
Mexico defeated the United States 4-2 in that final of that
regional championship. Eight players from the Copa America squad
were suspended Tuesday for breaking training rules.
Costa Rica replaced Japan, which withdrew after the March 11
earthquake and tsunami.