All through the build-up to the World Cup, the question hovered in the air like a Brazilian news helicopter spying on a Chilean training session. How would Lionel Messi respond to the withering scrutiny of his countrymen -- a national cabal who await some tangible proof that he feels as much pride in Argentina's shirt as he does in Barcelona's colors?
As far as his compatriots are concerned, all those World Player of the Year baubles he's collected in leading his club to domestic and European dominance are just fool's gold until he's delivered a shiny piece of silverware to the place named on the front of his passport.
It's really a very simple piece of human calculus: If you want us to love you, Lionel, then bring home the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1986 when the Great God Diego Maradona descended from the heavens with it.
Do we have a deal or what?
The answer won't be known until July 13, the date of the World Cup final, but it is safe to say that Messi is doing everything in his preternatural powers to drag the Albiceleste up the mountain of global supremacy while simultaneously scaling the jagged edge of national redemption.
And that is what is so vexing -- the fact a player who has made the miraculous seem routine on a soccer field should feel the need to validate his nation's bloated expectations. Argentina might want to soak itself in the warm memory bath of the last man who delivered them a World Cup with the help of a phantom handball, but why should Messi have to drown in the process? Who would blame him if at tournament's end, whatever the result, he took off his jersey and hopped the next Gulfstream back across the ocean where his fans appreciate him for the treasure he is -- a South American gem worth $27 million per year.
The boos first washed over him at the 2010 World Cup when strangely deployed by Maradona, Argentina's then-manager, as a deep-lying playmaker. Messi went scoreless through the tournament that ended with a 4-0 beatdown by Germany in the quarters. They grew louder and more insistent a year later at the Copa America, where he underperformed and Argentina were knocked out at home by Uruguay in the quarters.
Then came Argentina's opening game of this World Cup against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Rio. The blue and whites were clinging to a precarious 1-0 lead in the 63rd minute when Messi stepped up to a free kick. The ball flew off his foot and landed somewhere in the vicinity of Recife, the jeers echoing around the famous Maracana Stadium.
The predominantly Argentine crowd was barely done whistling derisively at Messi when he jinked across the top of the box, eluding one challenge, then another before lashing the ball into the far corner of the net. It was his first World Cup goal since 2006 and the look on his face was a mixture of joy, relief and defiance. The notoriously fickle Argentine fans now sang his name in tribute.
Messi has scored four times in the tournament so far -- or three more than he managed in his previous eight World Cup matches in 2006 and 2010. It is almost solely because of his inspirational talent that Argentina was able to record a perfect nine points in topping a less than fearsome group and book a date with Switzerland on Tuesday (noon ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) in the round of 16. If his goals have been less jaw-dropping than some of his Barca golazos, they were perhaps more impressive for the desperate circumstances under which they were scored.
At Barca -- except maybe this past season, when injuries led to his notching a paltry 41 goals in 44 games and the Catalan superpower failed to win a trophy for the first time in six years -- Messi enjoyed the support of a robust defense and a brilliantly creative midfield orchestrated by Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Neither of those areas of the field is anywhere near as formidable on his national team -- in fact, Argentina's back line and goalkeeper are one of the more vulnerable among the World Cup contenders -- and while the Swiss pose little threat to pierce that soft underbelly, there are tougher opponents ahead (if form holds, the Albicelestes are on a collision course with the Netherlands in the semifinals) who can weed-whack Messi's dreams into so much mulch.
Yes, I realize I skipped Argentina's potential quarterfinal matchup with the winner of Tuesday's U.S.-Belgium showdown. But as much as I'd love to see how Klinsi figures out how to stop Messi (have his players wear Maradona masks?), even a hopeless romantic like me (I picked England to win a game in Brazil!) can't honestly envision it happening.
Still, Argentina haven't exactly lit up the tournament so far and Messi has twice been forced to rescue his team from near catastrophe against both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran, two stubborn, physical teams that gave the blue and whites all they could handle. "We could beat Argentina," Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said after the game, "but we couldn't beat Messi."
As it happened, I watched the Argentina-Iran match on a small non-HD TV in a café off the beach in Salvador, surrounded by Brazilians in an increasingly buoyant mood the longer Iran held out heroically against Argentina's state-of-the-art front line featuring Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain in addition to Messi.
For 90 minutes, if you had wandered past that café and heard the decibel level of support for the players in red, you would have been forgiven thinking you were in downtown Tehran. The possibility that their bitter rival, one of three legitimate contenders to win the tournament, might have to settle for a 0-0 tie with a team the bookmakers pegged as 750-1 outsiders had made the café manager so giddy he treated us to a round of caipirinhas on the house (or maybe it was just the bar's buy back policy, since it was our fourth of the game).
To Brazilians, the thought of Argentina lifting the Cup on their country's most hallowed ground (the Maracana) is even more of a psychic hammer blow than an Arsenal fan having to endure watching a Tottenham player hoist the Premier League trophy on an open-air bus parade in North London. Fortunately, the latter has never happened.
And now, as the game entered stoppage time and Iran was seconds away from pulling off a shocking result, Messi collected the ball about 30 yards from goal and went to work. Like Maradona, all he needs is a sliver of space in which to wreak havoc and Iran had given him a small pocket on the right side of the box. Stepping forward, he took a touch to set himself, then pulled back that lethally precise left foot of his and curled the ball into the far corner of the net. Argentina had escaped and the once raucous café fell eerily quiet.
Once again, a moment of pure Messi magic had silenced the naysayers. As if on cue, three young men in blue and white jerseys came running down the street outside the café. They were pumping their fists, chanting "vamos, vamos Argentina" and holding a banner on which the faces of their country's Holy Trinity appeared: Maradona, Pope Francis and Messi. The only difference among the three was the word that accompanied Maradona's visage: Dios.
That is the state of grace to which Messi aspires and with every game he is getting closer. Against Nigeria, he scored two wondrous goals that deserved nicknames as he teased and tortured the Super Eagles before being substituted by coach Alejandro Sabella with 30 minutes remaining and victory secure.
He had already done enough to compel Nigeria's manager, Stephen Keshi, to swoon "Messi is from Jupiter" and for a popular Brazilian sports newspaper, Lance!, to concede that he had ascended to "another planet," which they refused to name except to say that its inhabitants are mostly Brazilian soccer legends and that Messi now ranks below only Pele, Garrincha, Romario and Ronaldo (not the one with washboard abs). How generous of them to suggest that he's better than, say, Zico and Rivaldo?
Oh yes, there was another guy in that pantheon just ahead of Messi and he wasn't Brazilian. Maradona came in at No. 5, which, frankly, is just as ridiculous as Messi's ranking. But I have a feeling that by July 13, we will see a revised list as well as a small change on that Argentina banner, where the word "Dios" will appear twice.