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Is Messi the Avatar of a Post-Macho Argentina?

Argentina’s passionate football fans create the players they want to see. They adore, they chide, they analyze. And few have been on the receiving end of Argentine scrutiny like Lionel Messi, the improbably slight forward who has dominated the sport for 15 years.

Despite his global success, Argentines have doubted his patriotism and suggested he cared more about Spain, where he played for F.C. Barcelona until 2021, than his home country. Journalists have insulted him, in explicitly gendered language, describing him as “pecho frio,” or “cold chested.” After he led a technically inferior team to the 2014 World Cup final, his own grandfather criticized him on television as “somewhat lazy.”

This year’s World Cup is likely to be the last for Messi, who is 35. He has performed admirably, with three goals so far, helping Argentina secure its spot in the quarterfinals, where it will face the Netherlands on Friday. But Argentine fans have seemed to care as much about their captain’s journey as they have about winning football’s ultimate prize.

That is a striking difference from when he announced his (short-lived) retirement in 2016 because of his failure to deliver an international trophy. The team’s recent winning streak — interrupted only by a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in the group stage — has gone a long way to ease tensions, but the pendulum has swung far beyond that. Messi, at least publicly, remains the same. Argentina, however, is a different country from the one he left in 2001 as a 13-year-old phenom. The feminist movement and its challenge to the patriarchs of football set off much of that transformation.

Messi has never fit the archetype of the “pibe,” an affectionate term for an Argentine football hero. The “pibe” was born in the poor neighborhoods of early 20th-century Buenos Aires. He outsmarted the elite with his trickery and wooed women with his charm. No one brought the figure to life more than Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup. Uncontrollable, Maradona symbolized rebellion against a militarized society. The Argentine public forgave, and often celebrated, his sexism, drug abuse and temper, which many saw as part of his “genius.”

In stark contrast, Messi, nicknamed “the flea,” is a subdued superstar. On the pitch, he pouts, he scowls and he even vomits. He was born in the provincial city of Rosario, where his father worked in a steel factory and his mother as a domestic servant. After he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at 11 years old, Messi’s family worried his football dreams might be over. When F.C. Barcelona offered to pay for expensive medical treatments, he signed a contract on a napkin and moved with his father to Spain. On the rare occasions when Messi discusses his childhood, he mentions the pain of separation from his mother and siblings.

Female players and their feminist allies have vocally criticized the “pibe” model and the “win at any cost” mentality perpetuated by football. In the process, they have — in the years that coincided with the peak of Messi’s career — changed the country’s football culture.

Read entire article at New York Times