The World Cup final caps a complex saga between Messi and Argentina

ROSARIO, Argentina — It was the second time Lionel Messi had played for the Argentina men’s national soccer team in the province where he grew up — sort of a homecoming party for him, a maestro who had left this corner of the world when he was 13

But when Argentina drew 0-0 with Colombia in 2011, the stadium erupted in boos.

“He’s a loser,” said one fan outside the game. “We haven’t won anything since he arrived,” said another. “He should never be compared to Maradona,” said a third, referring to Diego Maradona, the Argentine legend who has never faced such taunts from his compatriots.

Few nations are as obsessed with football as Argentina, and few people have ever been as talented with a football as Messi. But the relationship between the two – a man and his homeland – was deeply complicated.

Messi was born in Argentina but grew up and became a star in Europe. He amassed prizes and titles with Barcelona’s prestigious club side but struggled to win with Argentina national team for many years. And despite his status as perhaps the world’s best player, he has lived and played in Argentina in the shadow of Maradona, whose outspoken style, unlike the reserved Messi, endeared him to Argentines.

Now on Sunday, this nation of 47 million people will pin their hopes on the Rosario boy to clinch his first World Cup title in 36 years, which he says would be the last attempt of his career.

Regardless of the outcome, after years of criticism that even led to Messi’s brief departure from the national team, the momentum has changed.

After a brilliant performance at this year’s tournament aged 35 and the emergence of a sharper edge in Messi’s personality on the pitch, Argentina have unequivocally embraced their native son.

“We’ve traveled all over the world and people were desperate for Lionel. Here, at our airport, they didn’t even greet him,” said Adrián Coria, Messi’s childhood coach before moving to Barcelona in 2001 to pursue a professional football career and later being one of Messi’s coaches with the national team. “But all that has changed remarkably.”

Messi’s face adorns murals across the country, sometimes it seems like half the nation wears his No.10 shirt. All criticism of the man has given way to praise, admiration and pride.

“Messi has nothing against him,” said Sergio Duri, the owner of a restaurant in Rosario with Messi’s signature on the wall, five blocks from Messi’s birth hospital. “We Argentines see him as perfect.”

Of course, the win helped.

Last year, Messi led Argentina to win South America’s premier football tournament, the Copa América, their first international title in 28 years. And this year he helped Argentina reach the World Cup final against France on Sunday.

But many Argentines in Rosario and beyond this week insisted Messi’s status as a national hero had been cemented whether he wins or loses.

Messi was visibly touched. “I think we Argentines have learned that it’s not just about the result, it’s about the journey to get there,” he replied.

And his road to Sunday was bumpy at times.

Messi was born in 1987, a year after Argentina’s last World Cup title, in Rosario, the country’s third largest city, an agricultural center about a four-hour drive north of Buenos Aires. He was a prodigy on the soccer field, but too small. “Everything he’s doing now, he was doing when he was 12,” Coria said. “But 40 centimeters shorter and very thin.”

In 2001, at the age of 13, Messi left Argentina for Barcelona for both training and growth hormone therapy. Since then he has lived in Europe.

Messi exploded on the football scene at 17, a dazzling talent who would win dozens of European titles with Barcelona over the next two decades and break various individual records, including seven Ballon d’Or awards for the best male footballer of the year.

But the same success was denied him with the Argentine national team. As the team’s star player, Argentina’s championship drought lasted longer, leading to growing criticism that he didn’t play as hard for Argentina as he did for Barcelona.

Fabián Basualdo, a former Argentina international and coach of Messi when he was a kid at Rosario, said if he had been in Messi’s situation he might have given up on Argentina. “In the circle of friends,” he said, “we always said: ‘Don’t come back, stay in Europe.'”

Messi’s national team lost at the 2014 World Cup and then at the Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016. After that, Messi announced that he was done playing for Argentina. “I did everything I could,” he said. “There will be no turning back.”

Although he quickly changed his mind, his short retirement brought more barbs.

One of the problems Messi faces in Argentina is that he isn’t the first Argentine to be declared the best footballer in the world – and the first was seen as far more Argentinian.

Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, was outspoken, raw and outspoken – traits Argentines saw in themselves. Messi, on the other hand, is polite, polished and reserved and some Argentines struggle to relate to that.

So Messi’s trash talk in Argentina’s quarter-finals game against the Netherlands, when he was filmed saying to an opposing player, “What are you looking at, dummy?” has become a moment of national celebration in Argentina.

Newspapers said he behaved rather “Maradon”. Several Argentines interviewed for this article proudly quoted him. And a mural leading to Messi’s childhood quarters had the phrase added just a week after the game.

“Did you see when he said ‘dummy’ the other day?” said Raul Oliveri, 63, manager at Messi’s children’s football club in Rosario for 25 years, stopping his sweep outside a field where Messi once played. “That shows you he’s from here. He never left.”

That’s how Messi feels. In an interview last year, he said he still feels strong ties to his hometown despite having spent his entire adult life abroad. “I don’t know how to explain it. I love being in Rosario, being with my people, meeting friends and family, having a barbecue with them,” he said. “Maybe I left as a kid and didn’t enjoy the country and my friends as much as I would have liked.”

Messi married a woman from Rosario, Antonela Roccuzzo, and they have three children together. The family has several apartments there and both Messi and Roccuzzo still visit relatives there every year.

On Thursday, a man who said he was the brother-in-law of one of Messi’s siblings entered the modest two-storey house where Messi grew up. “He feels he belongs here,” said Sergio Vallejos, 45, from behind mirrored sunglasses. “He’s like one of us. A kid from the neighborhood.”

He lifted his shirt to reveal a more than a foot long tattoo of Messi on his torso. Then he pulled up a music video of his rock band on his cell phone. The song was about Rosario’s pride in Messi and used the same line that adorns a huge mural at the entrance to the street: “From another galaxy and from my neighborhood.”

Shortly before, about two dozen children from low-income neighborhoods in Rosario were taken on a tour of their city made up mostly of Messi landmarks, which are part of various government programs celebrating the city’s association with the global soccer star. The kids posed for a photo in front of the house where Messi lived when he was their age and pointed to the sky like he does after most goals.

“If Messi loses, it doesn’t matter,” said a 9-year-old boy, Alan. “Because at least he got us into the final. And he’s the best.”

Ezequiel Fernández Moores, an Argentine sportswriter since 1978, said that the bond between Messi and his country is now one of love. “It was a complicated relationship but Messi’s connection with Argentina is no longer complicated,” he said. “And it will last despite what happens on Sunday. This relationship is here to stay.”

Ana Lankes contributed to the coverage from Buenos Aires.

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