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With backs against the wall, staring over the abyss into the pit of international mediocrity, Argentina needed a rescue act. For so long, the football-obsessed nation has turned to Lionel Messi in its hour of need.

But after a torrid qualifying campaign, Messi joined late following the despair of a Copa America final defeat to Chile on penalties. Questions were being asked about the greatest player on the planet.

Those questions continued with World Cup elimination staring Argentina in the face. But Messi temporarily quieted any concerns with the 44th hat-trick of his career to sink Ecuador and book Argentina’s passage to the World Cup finals.

The celebrations in the dressing room highlighted the relief and the joy that victory brought, but scratch under the surface and there are problems one supreme performance cannot gloss over.

The headline on the front page of Wednesday’s Argentinian sport newspaper Ole declared: “Messi is Argentinian.” Outside Argentina, these huge words printed in yellow may seem redundant, if not simply silly. Taken literally, everyone knows Messi is Argentinian. However, in Messi’s homeland, this headline can be decoded in another way, as it has at least three meanings.

Firstly, it’s a word-play linked to an old Argentinian saying that God is Argentinian, which connects to another (footballing) saying that “Diego Maradona is God” (he is named in the media as D10S, with “Dios” meaning “God” in Spanish). But it’s also strongly linked with the severe criticism Messi has received since the very beginning: that he isn’t a true Argentinian.

Although he neither reads papers nor watches TV, Messi is aware he is regularly criticised in Argentina. As he admitted in a July interview with TV show Alma de Potrero: “I no longer care about critics, but I did care at the beginning, because there were so many things people said about me. I was a boy and didn’t understand why I was so criticised.”

While worshipped in Catalonia, the relationship between Messi and Argentinian fans has never been smooth. It’s been more of a love-hate one: He was loudly booed during the 2011 Copa America played in Argentina, but fans begged him to have second thoughts following his retirement. The loss to Chile was his fourth in an international final (Copa America 2007, World Cup 2014, Copa America 2015, Copa America 2016), and he was tired as well as frustrated.

Messi following his team's loss on penalties to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final.

Messi following his team’s loss on penalties to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Afterward, he announced his retirement from international play:

“I have tried so hard to be a champion with Argentina. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. So I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. This is over, this is my decision.”

At that point, Argentina weren’t struggling in the qualifiers—they had already picked up 11 points from six games and were third in the table ahead of Brazil in sixth.

It was understandable. Messi had been criticised for a long time, even for not singing the national anthem before games, which gave fuel to the notion he wasn’t a true Argentinian. Messi was drunk in May 2009 when he spoke in Catalan for the first time in public while holding a microphone surrounded by his Barcelona team-mates in front of a full Camp Nou during the celebrations for winning the treble (UEFA Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey). He yelled, “Visca el Barca y visca Catalunya” (“Long live Barca and long live Catalonia”).

He had lived and studied in Catalonia since 2000 and perfectly understood spoken Catalan. He told Argentinian TV station TyC Sports in 2009, “Once you get used to it, it’s an easy language.”

He has never publicly backed the Catalan independence movement because, according to Sebastian Fest, co-author with Alexandre Juillard of the book Misterio Messi, he doesn’t care about politics in Spain or Argentina. Nevertheless, he is unquestionably loved passionately in Catalonia.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JULY 29: Fans of FC Barcelona hold up banners for Neymar of FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi  of FC Barcelona during the International Champions Cup 2017 match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at Hard Rock Stadium on July 29, 2017 in

Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

Conversely, in his homeland, he has been scrutinised since the beginning. He has even been treated as if he wasn’t an Argentinian by a considerable, intense portion of his countrymen, no matter how hard he has tried to be—and look—like an Argentinian. He talks like an Argentinian, he insults like an Argentinian and he jokes like an Argentinian, even though he left his hometown Rosario and moved to Catalonia at 12.

“I don’t sing the national anthem because I don’t feel I have to,” Messi told Alma de Potrero. “Every person feels the national anthem in different ways, and mine is feeling it inside my body while listening to it.”

Criticism for not singing the national anthem is closely linked with another complaint fans and journalists have regularly made of Messinot being like Maradona. Maradona is remembered for singing it passionately and for insulting Italian fans booing it during the 1990 World Cup. In the fans’ imagination, Maradona never underperformed playing for Argentina and won the 1986 World Cup by himself without his team-mates’ help, while Messi has failed in four finals and has never been the charismatic leader he was expected to be.

So the homage Messi is being paid now in Argentina was unthinkable earlier this week, when he and his Argentina team-mates were on the verge of missing a World Cup for the first time since 1970.

It’s no wonder the players, an exultant Messi included, sang inside the dressing room after the game: “We don’t care what the f–ker journalists say. Sons of bitches. You have to cheer the national team. You have to cheer the national team until death.”

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