Pablo Martinez, like scores of Argentine fans, has travelled a long way to watch his team play at the World Cup in Russia. Sadly, the first game of this tournament elicited the same emotion as the last World Cup game Argentina played: heartbreak.
An hour after a nervy Iceland held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in the opening game of their group stage, Pablo stood with a compatriot at the entrance of a subway in Moscow, staring into space. It seemed like his friend was trying to decide which direction to go, but Pablo just bore a blank expression on his face.
Noticing their Argentina jerseys, I walk about to them and cheerfully asked them how they are enjoying their Russian trip. Pablo looked at me as if I was half crazy. My expression changed gradually and I asked him whether he was upset about the game. “Where are you from, my friend?” he asked. On hearing I was from India he replied with a smirk, “For you, football is just a game. For us, it us our soul.” I wondered how a draw had affected them so deeply, but I soon realised that it was not just about the result.
“We travelled half the way around the world to watch him miss a penalty,” he said, referring to Lionel Messi missing yet another penalty in his illustrious career. Then he dropped the bomb. “He must be killed for this. We want him dead, nothing else.” A bit harsh, I think to myself, but such is the seething anger that Argentines have towards one of the game’s greatest players.
“You know what,” he went on, “Messi does not play with his heart. He can score a lot of goals, yes, but you do not miss a shot like this. The best player in the world does not miss a penalty like that. Did you see Cristiano [Ronaldo] yesterday? He knows what he is doing and he does it with all his heart. If I see Messi right now, I will hit him.”
Pablo’s friend said that back in Argentina, there is great respect for what Messi does consistently for Barcelona. But they fail to see the passion in his eyes. “To us in Argentina, either you win the World Cup or you are nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a good person, a kind person or humble person. When you put this jersey, you play with all your life.”
[Image: Lionel Messi] Messi looks dejected after the match against Iceland.
I proceed to ask the cliched question: Who do they prefer, Messi or Maradona? “The difference between Maradona and Messi is that Maradona has a replica of a World Cup in his bedroom. What does Messi have? Maradona played with his heart and soul when he played for Argentina.”
Pablo’s friend said that he feels Messi is much more skilled than Maradona. “But Maradona had that special something when he played in the World Cups. Messi does not have that,” he said. The two of them then got into an argument in Spanish when Pablo said that Messi will be on the same level as Maradona if he wins the World Cup. His friend strongly disagreed.
“Next game Messi scores two, three goals? Good, we will clap. But today, he must be killed for this,” Pablo repeated, matter-of-factly. “Indians might not understand this in football. If your best cricket player loses the World Cup because of one bad match, he should face the same reaction too.”
As we were about to part ways, Pablo said, “You know what,” before he pauses to catch his breath. “I cried after the game. We did not come here for this.” His eyes had welled up.