PARIS (AFP) – As problem players go, Lionel Messi is not an obvious candidate.
By common consensus the world’s best player, he is shy and softly spoken off the pitch and is more likely to be found playing on his PlayStation than tearing up the dance-floor in his local nightclub.
For fans of Argentina, however, he remains a frustrating enigma.
World-beating for Barcelona, he is a different player in the sky blue and white of his country and his record of 17 goals in 62 internationals is a poor return for a man who scores goals in his sleep for Barca.
“I am not going to win any games on my own, just as I don’t win games on my own with Barcelona,” he protested in a recent interview on Argentine radio.
How to get Messi playing for Argentina like he plays for Barcelona has become something of a national obsession in his homeland, where suspicions fester about his commitment to the country’s cause.
Diego Maradona sought to use Messi as a classic playmaker at last year’s World Cup in South Africa, declaring: “All the balls have to pass through him.”
The result, however, was that Messi became over-burdened and he cut a forlorn and isolated figure in his side’s 4-0 quarter-final annihilation by Germany.
Maradona’s successor, Sergio Batista, sought to remedy the problem by fielding Messi in the elusive ‘false nine’ role he occupies for Barca, where he starts as the nominal striker but is granted freedom to roam.
However, deployed as such alongside Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi in Argentina’s opening two matches at the Copa America, he struggled to influence proceedings and seemed frustrated by the lack of movement ahead of him.
Restored to a deeper role behind Gonzalo Higuain, he shone in a 3-0 defeat of Costa Rica, but was then crowded out in the quarter-finals as the hosts fell on penalties to eventual winners Uruguay.
Argentina clearly need Messi if this generation of players is ever to realise its spectacular potential, but Messi needs Argentina too.
At just 24 he has already won everything there is to win in the domestic game and is Barcelona’s second-highest all-time goalscorer, but his only significant achievement in international football is a gold medal from the 2008 Olympics.
His Champions League performances have already granted him sporting immortality, but some will argue that he cannot be compared to Pele and Maradona until he wins a World Cup.
The man charged with leading Argentina to Brazil in 2014 is Alejandro Sabella, a former River Plate playmaker who led Estudiantes to the 2009 Copa Libertadores title.
The 56-year-old installed Messi as his captain shortly after his appointment in August but said the key to Argentina’s fortunes lay in giving their talisman the liberty to express himself.
“We must let him be happy,” said Sabella. “We must let him play completely freely on the pitch.”
A side shorn of European-based players came out second-best in a recent double-header with Brazil, after successes against Venezuela and Nigeria in Sabella’s first games in charge.
The squad that Sabella named for the first qualifying match at home to Chile on Friday and the trip to Venezuela four days later retained a core of 13 players from the Copa America squad.
Former stalwarts including Tevez, Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso were dropped, however, to give emerging players like Federico Fernandez, Ricardo Alvarez and Nicolas Gaitan a chance to stake a claim in the team’s future.
Sabella is the seventh coach to take charge of Argentina since Carlos Bilardo led the albiceleste to glory at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Bilardo’s masterstroke was the creation of a 3-5-2 system that gave Maradona the freedom to wreak havoc on opposition defences.
With Brazil out of the picture due to their status as hosts, Argentina’s success in the qualifiers may depend on Sabella’s ability to find a similar solution to the Lionel Messi conundrum.