Soccer: Messi proves unstoppable — except with Argentina
By VICENTE L. PANETTA
BUENOS AIRES, 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.