Argentina's Lionel Messi reacts after Croatia's Luka Modric scored his side's second goal during the group D match. Photo: AP Photo
I have nothing but empathy for Lionel Messi. While I fully understand the view that great things are expected from those with great talent - it is, after all, the burden of genius  I often despair for the unfair comparisons and the vitriol that accompany any below-par performance from the Argentine playmaker.

Messi is not Diego Maradona; he is not Cristiano Ronaldo. He is Messi  he has a personality of his own; his life, his worldview and his character and emotions have been shaped by his own individual background and experiences. Maradona ate life for breakfast - you could throw anything at him and he’d chew it up and spit it out. Ronaldo may come across as a preening peacock, but it’s this very same swagger that is at the root of his competitiveness; his desire to always be the best.

Messi is an introvert - and, judging by his gloomy body language at Russia 2018, it’s evident, as it always is with a loner personality, when things don’t go his way, he retreats even deeper inside his shell. As football fans, we cannot expect Messi to respond to adversity and challenges in the same way as Maradona or Ronaldo - he is not wired that way. He is who he is; he can only react in a manner commensurate to his character; we cannot expect him to fit into a box designed by our expectations.

More importantly, the difference between the Barcelona Messi and Argentina Messi can be traced to the team-mates he has around him. In essence, this Argentina side looks to have no direction and they certainly don’t appear to be coached very well. The game plan is Messi and nothing else, and that is essentially the problem.

Football is a team game and to heap so much responsibility on the shoulders of one man is tantamount to disaster before a ball has even been kicked. If things are to change for Argentina, then it’s going to require a complete change of thinking from the bench.

In the same breath, though, as opprobrium continues to rain down on Argentina, let’s not forget that they were beaten by a very good Croatia side. In the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, the usual suspects were among the favourites - Germany, Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina  but after that impressive display against the South Americans, don’t be surprised if Croatia go very far in this tournament.

The squad is certainly good enough - and in Luka Modric, wow, do they have a footballer of class, capable of holding everything together? What’s more, in reflecting on his sensational goal, he is also adept at producing moments of individual magic.

Modric’s master-class also sheds more light on the Messi conundrum. Consider how the Real Madrid midfield star, as the fulcrum of this Croatia is able to operate: around him, he has the craft of Ivan Rakitic, the industry of Marcelo Brozovic and the relentless, unselfish running of Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic. Then compare that with the lethargy and indolence of the bewildered players who surround Messi.


Weekend Argus

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