At the end of an electric and tense first half in Santiago, Chile, the Argentina players walk towards the tunnel. Yet as Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Fernando Gago and company disappear down the corridor, their captain, Lionel Messi, is stopped by the assistant referee. The man in yellow would like a photo with the number 10.
It is not the first time this has happened. In Alejandro Sabella’s first match in charge of Argentina, in September 2011, the new Coach handed Messi the captaincy for the friendly against Venezuela in Calcutta. Before kick-off, the assistant referee quite literally shoved a camera in front of Messi, just as the captains met in the centre circle. The new Albiceleste skipper looked away. Handshakes needed to be exchanged, the match needed to start, and the moment was gone. Tragically, the assistant referee was unable to have the meeting captured on his memory card, although it is available not just for him, but also for the entire world, to see on YouTube.
Messi is not only a celebrity for those who happen to be in his vicinity and seize the occasion to have a photo taken with him, whether it is an airport, restaurant, or midway through a World Cup qualifier. Those in his inner circle also revere him. Footballers, good friends of his, regularly post pictures with him on Twitter after games.
Eight years, to the day, after making his professional debut for Barcelona, Messi delivered a display for his country – the second in five days, in fact – that shatters the myth that he doesn’t ‘feel the shirt’ and fails to perform for Argentina.
Some say him not singing the national anthem is proof. Others used to point to the slightly more tangible evidence of the statistics that showed that his performances – goals and assists combined – were weaker with Argentina than they were with Barcelona. South American defenders mark harder than in Europe, went the parochial line.
This is no longer the case. Under Sabella, Messi has hit the astonishing performance levels for Argentina that he shows for Barcelona. His goal against Chile on Tuesday night added to a brace against Uruguay last Friday. In Santiago, he latched on to an incisive pass from Valencia’s Fernando Gago. Like an indoor footballer, he rolled the ball around the defender who caught up with him and beat Miguel Pinto in goal with a shot inside the near post.
The goal was not just another moment of brilliance from him, but more importantly came with his side having ridden their luck after wave upon wave of Chilean attack at the other end of the pitch in the opening minutes. In a tough away match, it pegged the opponents back.
Against Uruguay, Messi finished from close range to open the scoring before delicately chipping a sublime pass for Di Maria, who then crossed for Aguero to double the lead. His cheeky and perfectly executed free-kick under the wall ended the rout in the world’s oldest national derby.
Under Sabella, he has flourished in his national colours. Far from the tub-thumping caudillo often expected of Argentine leaders, Messi simply leads by example, scoring 14 goals in 14 games with the current Coach. And while Argentina are top of the South American group, for their captain the records keep coming.
His goal against Chile drew him level with Gabriel Batistuta for the record of 12 goals scored for the national team in a calendar year. Batigol took 12 games to reach that figure in 1998, Messi took just eight in 2012. And while Messi is some way off Batistuta’s all-time record of 56 with Argentina, he is only two from reaching another landmark – Diego Maradona’s tally of 33 goals.
Not even Messi’s softly spoken and reserved national team Coach can avoid being swept away by what he sees in front of him. Last week Sabella admitted that when he is no longer Argentina Coach, he might just ask Messi for one of his shirts.