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Messi’s likely last World Cup raises hope in a beleaguered Argentina

A mural of Argentine soccer great Lionel Messi looms over Rosario, his hometown.
A mural of Argentine soccer great Lionel Messi looms over Rosario, his hometown. (Anita Pouchard Serra for The Washington Post)

Remark

ROSARIO, Argentina — It’s match day at Abanderado Grandoli, a small, working-class football club here in Argentina’s third-largest city. Local families pay $1 a month for their 4-year-old sons to play seven-a-side football – a first step, many hope, towards a professional career in the national obsession.

In the small dressing room hangs a poster of a child who passed the club three decades ago – inspiration for little boys with big dreams. His name is Lionel Messi.

“Seeing Messi play at that age was, simply put, unforgettable,” said club president David Treves, now 45. “How could you forget? He was a small, introverted 4-year-old who then did what the world saw decades later.” The goalkeeper would give Messi the ball, he said, and the kid would dribble through the opposition until he scored.

“The word is fantastic,” Treves said. “It was absolutely fantastic.”

Now fans here are looking forward to what will likely be one last chance to see one of history’s greatest international players as Messi, now 35, takes to the field next week for what is expected to be his final World Cup. Argentina will start the group stage against Saudi Arabia in Qatar on Tuesday.

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For Argentines, the kick-off cannot come soon enough. Bad news has plagued this South American country of 46 million: inflation is estimated to hit 100 percent this year, a September assassination attempt on polarizing Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the need to launch the world’s largest bailout of the International Monetary Fund to avoid default. Fernández de Kirchner, a former president, and other politicians are accused of long-running corruption scandals. Surveys of ordinary Argentines convey a dizzying sense of pessimism.

Bettors have an 11-2 chance of a cup win for the Albiceleste (the national team’s nickname is a poetic rendition of the alabaster white and sky blue of the flag and jersey), according to the latest figures from Caesars Sportsbook. That is second only to neighbor and arch-rival Brazil.

“The World Cup is an opportunity to restore enthusiasm in a country that is extremely frustrated and filled with an overwhelming sense of failure,” said José Abadi, a psychiatrist in Buenos Aires. “It’s an opportunity to win for once and get global recognition for how good our football is rather than how much money we owe.”

Every four years, Argentina becomes a different country for a month. A national fever grips Argentines and political divisions fade as Buenos Aires is draped in national colours. During games, streets empty, shops close their doors and factories come to a standstill. Students and teachers gather around television screens.

“If a game is played during class hours, schools have to broadcast it,” Argentina’s Education Minister Jaime Perczyk told The Washington Post. If they didn’t, he says, teens would skip classes altogether.

“Argentine schools have always shown the games,” he said. “They have done it before and will continue to do so. It is a piece of Argentinian culture and we should also use it to enrich the pedagogical proposition.”

Cristian Pereyra, 48, works in a factory that produces shock absorbers and dampers. Managers set up a television so that the 500 employees don’t miss the game. “Whenever Argentina plays, the whole factory shuts down,” he said. “Some don’t like football, but that’s the way it is.”

Soccermania arrived early this year due to a shortage figurinesthe baseball card-like stickers collected by young and old alike during the World Cup – leading the government to step in to streamline production.

Messi was highly acclaimed from an early age, says Grandoli coach Marcos Almada – at the time he was spoken of as the ‘new Diego Maradona’. But he wasn’t always so loved.

Maradona led Argentina to its second and most recent World Cup title, over Germany in 1986. Named FIFA’s Player of the 20th Century alongside Brazil’s Pelé, the smaller-than-average, larger-than-life footballer has inspired a cult following — literally .

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At Club Servando Bayo, a small establishment in Rosario, a group of about 150 people has gathered. It’s the eve of October 30, Maradona’s birthday. For the members of the Church of Maradona, the year is 62 AD

In 1998, a decade after Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal took home the cup, a group of fanatics decided to worship their idol forever. They came up with ten commandments: “Thou shalt love football above all else”; “Thou shalt declare unconditional love for Diego” – writings and poetry, even a baptism ritual: insiders recreate the unnamed handball goal that gave Argentina 1-0 against England in the 1986 quarter-finals.

Since their hero died in 2020, the congregation has grown. “Without Diego, our love for him became much deeper,” says Hernán Amez, a church planter. On Maradonian Christmas, they display paintings of his greatest goals and play video highlights from his career.

As midnight approaches, the zealots call on his parents. “In the name of Doña Tota and Don Diego,” they sing.

Maradona is to some extent a “totemic father” to Argentines, said Abadi, the psychiatrist. The adoration surrounding the star, whose great personality sparked extreme reactions off the football pitch, has complicated Messi’s connection with fans.

“As successor, Messi was not only loved but also criticized,” he said. “He shouldn’t be pretending to be a national hero.”

Messi is an experienced star in Europe, having played for Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, winning 11 club championships and four UEFA Champions League titles. He has won the Ballon d’Or – the Ballon d’Or, awarded each year to the best footballer in the world – a record seven times, most recently in 2021.

But national titles have largely eluded him. He won Olympic gold with Argentina in Beijing in 2008. But during his tenure, the national team lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany and three Copa América finals.

“The national team is over for me,” he said after a shootout defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa América final. “I tried so hard; victorious [with Argentina] is what I wanted most, but it is simply impossible. I can’t win.”

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For Argentines, Messi’s struggles in international play have drawn bitter comparisons to Maradona’s successes. Still, his retirement shattered fans. His dismay caused some critics to warm to him. He eventually won the Copa América in 2021.

“Those comparisons were so silly,” said Pereyra, the factory worker. “We can be proud that both he and Maradona are Argentinians.”

In Barrio La Bajada in Rosario, a labyrinthine complex of narrow streets and alleys, Messi’s childhood home has become a refuge. The two-story concrete house is still unpainted, but virtually everything around it is decorated in his honor: sidewalks and light poles are painted white and blue, and neighbors’ walls and doorways are decorated with murals of the star.

The hope here for a third World Cup title – and a first for Messi – is high.

“In the twilight of his career, Messi arrives in Qatar as one of the best players in the world,” said Ezequiel Fernández Moores, an Argentine sports journalist. “I have never seen Messi like this in the national team, personally and football technically. He is more relaxed and more mature, the natural leader of the team.”

Minutes past midnight in Maradona’s church, Laura Gómez and Gabriel Rodríguez plan to take their wedding vows. A couple for 23 years, they come from Buenos Aires to get married.

“This is a show of love for him,” said Gómez. “It’s great to have a place to worship Diego. We miss him every game and even more now that the World Cup is coming.”

She is confident that Maradona will be with Messi and Argentina throughout the tournament.

“Diego’s legacy is embedded in Messi’s heart,” she said. “Every time I stare at the stars, I say to myself. ‘Diego, please lend us a hand in Qatar!’”

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