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Messi is 'no leader'? If only Maradona could see the Argentina captain now!

08:00 GMT 13/12/2022
Lionel Messi Argentina Netherlands 2022 World Cup HIC 16:9
The reclusive superstar has proven himself a great captain with his actions on and off the field at the World Cup in Qatar

The fallout from Argentina's 2018 World Cup campaign hit Lionel Messi hard. Jorge Sampaoli's set-up had been a shambles. They had only qualified thanks to a Messi hat-trick in a 3-1 win in Ecuador on the final matchday of CONMEBOL qualifying. The No.10 had also scored a sensational opener in the must-win group game against Nigeria.

Yet Messi copped considerable criticism. Most notably, and most painfully, from his idol and former mentor, Diego Maradona.

"We shouldn't deify Leo any longer," he told Fox Sports. "He's Messi when he plays for Barcelona. Messi is Messi when he wears that shirt, and he's another Messi with Argentina.

"He's a great player but he's not a leader. It's useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game."

If only Maradona could see him now.

Messi has admitted that it's been strange not having his hero in Qatar. Even when he wasn't part of the set-up, Maradona was one of the squad's most passionate supporters.

How he would have enjoyed this World Cup. With Argentina fans taking over entire arenas and literally bowing before their idol for not only shining, but leading.

Indeed, everything that happened before, during and after the quarter-final clash with Netherlands encapsulated just how far Messi has come since Russia 2018.

Ahead of a truly epic encounter in Lusail, the 35-year-old called for an end to the criticism of Lautaro Martinez, who had squandered a succession of chances after coming on as a substitute in the hard-fought 2-1 win over Australia.

Messi insisted that the onus was on him and everyone else to ensure that the struggling striker kept his head up. He privately consoled a player who he has the utmost respect for, once calling him a "complete striker", and publicly prophesied that Lautaro would play a major role in Argentina's World Cup campaign.

How right he was, with Martinez proving his mettle by converting the crucial penalty in the shootout with the Dutch, despite an enormous amount of pressure and outrageous gamesmanship from the likes of Denzel Dumfries.

Then, when Lautaro wheeled away to celebrate his successful spot-kick, the players set off after the Inter ace.

All but one. Messi instead made a beeline for Emiliano Martinez, who was lying spread-eagled on the opposite side of the pitch.

It was a lovely show of appreciation for a player that had not only saved two penalties in the shootout, but perhaps best personifies the spirit of self-sacrifice that has transformed Argentina's fortunes over the past four years.

Indeed, during a rousing speech ahead of last year's Copa America final triumph over Brazil that completely altered the public perception of Messi as a silent leader, the skipper singled out Martinez for special praise.

"I want to thank you all for these past 45 days, boys," Messi told his team-mates at the Maracana. "I said it on the day of my birthday, this is a spectacular group, a beautiful group.

"It's been 45 days of hard work in which we haven't complained about the travelling, the food, the hotels, the pitches, nothing. 45 days without seeing our families. 45 days... El Dibu (Emilio Martinez) became a father and didn't even get to see his new born child, and why? Because of this moment boys.

"We had an objective and we're one step away from achieving it and the best thing about it is it's in our hands. So, we're going to go out there and lift the trophy, we're going to take it home to Argentina and enjoy it with our family, friends and everyone that has supported Argentina.

"And I want to finish with this: Coincidences don't exist. This tournament had to be played in Brazil and do you know why? Because God brought it here so we win here in the Maracana for all of us. So, let's go out there with confidence, with cool heads, and let's win this trophy. Come on, boys!"

Is it any wonder, then, that Martinez admitted after the Finalissima win over Italy that Argentina's players "fight like lions for Leo"?

And what's now become clear is that Messi is also willing to fight for them. In Argentina, there were those that didn't always feel like he was one of them. He had, after all, spent most of his life in Barcelona. That's why he plays better for the Blaugrana than the Albiceleste, they reasoned.

While they admired Messi, they adored Diego. Messi may have been the ideal family man, but Maradona was their lovable rogue.

As author Marcelo Sottile told Reuters, "Leo is the Argentine we all want to be. Diego is a bit of the Argentine that we really are: the fighter who rebels against power."

Which explains why the way in which Messi so publicly lashed out against the likes of Louis van Gaal and Wout Weghorst after the nastiest of games against the Dutch went over so well with his compatriots. This was the Messi they had always wanted to see. Not just inspiration, but aggression too.

Messi has always reminded them of Maradona because of the way he plays the game. Here, though, he showed off an ever so slightly similar streak of sass.

"Diego is watching us from heaven," Messi said after the game.

If he is, Maradona will be immensely proud of his heir. And the captain he has become.