Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Messi felt many different emotions at the Maracanã. It was in Brazil’s iconic stadium that he suffered his greatest triumph: the final of the 2014 World Cup. The loss that rocked Argentina’s talisman for years drew strong criticism. But it was also in Rio that he won the Copa América in 2021, his first title for the national team and paved the way for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Two years after winning the South American title, Lionel Messi returns to the Maracanã on Tuesday for a World Cup qualifier at the perfect moment. Facing Brazil in crisis, lost and full of instability since their elimination in Qatar, Messi could receive his final coronation, with the recognition and applause of the rival fans in one of the greatest classics best in football in the world.
“It was a great achievement for Messi to be happy in Brazil. It’s a game at the Maracanã, a world class game,” says former Brazilian left-back Adriano, who played with Messi between 2010 and 2016 in Barcelona.
“I would approve if it happened. His career was one of great honor. It would be historic. Even though he’s Argentinian, it’s a recognition of what he represents to world football.”
Adriano closely followed Messi’s ups and downs over six seasons. There were, of course, many more positive moments, but the lows always plagued Number 10. “I have often seen him upset at the criticism that he never won the World Cup. There was always a lot of pressure on him to be like Maradona and win the World Cup.”
The worst defeat was the 1-0 final defeat against Germany in 2014. The failure in Brazil was followed by devastating defeats in two more finals, against Chile at the Copa América in 2015 and 2016. After the second, Messi even announced his. retired from the national team, a decision he reversed two months later.
In one of the rare interviews he gave during that period, he expressed his frustration when he was treated by the press as a “failure”, a situation that even his young son, Thiago, related to.
“My six-year-old son asks me why they criticize me so much in Argentina,” he said. “I tell him it’s just some of them, not all of them. He knows there are people like me,” Messi said in 2019.
The frustration expressed by Messi in that interview had long haunted him, and it was clear to Adriano when his teammate returned to Barcelona after the World Cup five years earlier.
“It came back with that bitter taste. It can’t be any different after coming so close to winning something important. A lot of pressure was put on him and people questioned whether he was not Argentinian because he went to Spain at a very young age. He was very sad about it because people did not see him as a person of reference in the country, that he had no relationship with the country, but it is completely wrong. It is the opposite. He is suffering a lot with the country. He always had a great feeling for Argentina.”
One of the turning points for Messi was winning the 2021 Copa América, a tournament fraught with off-field controversies. After Argentina and Colombia refused to host games due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil stepped in and was criticized by health experts. In addition to the negative image of holding the tournament in a country with more than 700,000 deaths from Covid-19, Argentina won the title, and Messi ended a 29-year trophyless streak from the national team in an empty Maracanã.
“The Copa América title made people see Messi in a different way,” says Adriano. “They [Argentinians] he saw the feeling and how he celebrated the title. That really helped him win the World Cup and become one of the greatest in Argentina’s history.”
Despite the rivalry with Argentina, Messi is not hated in Brazil. On the contrary, most people respect him as one of the greatest players of all time. In the 2022 World Cup final and his solo duel with Kylian Mbappé, Messi had the broad support of Brazil because Neymar is one of his best friends, and Neymar’s relationship with the French opposition has never been friendly.
“Everyone wanted him to win so he could make football history,” says Adriano. “He has turned things around not only because of his quality, but also because of his intelligence and his partnership. He is always fighting. There is no way not to run for it. It was a privilege to learn and live with him for six years.”
But while Messi is enjoying his World Cup honeymoon with Argentina fans, Brazil are going through one of the biggest crises in their history. As well as not having won the World Cup since 2002, which is the longest period since 1970 to 1994, the Seleção are in chaos.
Since Tite’s departure after Qatar 2022, Brazil has not had an official coach. The president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, Ednaldo Rodrigues, says he has an agreement to take over Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti in May next year, but the Italians have never confirmed the deal, and have given no indication that possibility there. for taking the team for Copa América 2024.
Until the arrival of the new coach, the caretaker Fernando Diniz is in a strange situation, with a double change. As well as coaching the Seleção, he also manages Fluminense. His club will play São Paulo on Wednesday, and the coach will be back at the Maracanã less than 24 hours after Brazil face Argentina.
In addition to not having a decisive coach, Brazil is missing big idols. Neymar, 31, is injured again and will be out of action for the next few months. The same in the case of Vinícius Júnior, who should be the successor of the Al-Hilal player as the leader of the team. Without idols, the country is trying to cling to the past. Jorginho, the former 1994 World Cup-winning right winger who is now a coach, sees the moment as similar to the one he experienced almost two decades ago.
“In 1994, we were under a lot of pressure, but at the same time, we realized that we had a great chance to write our name down in the history of Brazilian and world football. It is in difficult times that you have the opportunity to change your story,” he says.
Another 1994 winner Branco, the former left-back who is now Brazil’s youth team coordinator, agrees and demands more from experienced players in the squad.
“Every cycle you don’t win, your work is questioned,” he says. “In 1994, I was in my third World Cup. The pressure is there, but with time you learn to cope better with each situation. I knew what needed to be done and I used that experience to my advantage. It was up to me and the ‘dinosaurs’, the older group of players, to look after the younger players. That worked out really well.”