Lionel Messi is arguably the most talented footballer of his generation. But why are fans in his home country ambivalent towards him? Is it because he left Argentina to play in Spain? Or that he hasn’t yet brought the country a World Cup? Perhaps, argues a historian of Latin American soccer, it’s that he demonstrates a version of masculinity that cuts against the Argentine ideal of the footballer.
Argentina is a country dedicated to football. Lionel Messi, their national team captain, is one of the game’s greatest talents. Yet, the Argentine public has never fully embraced him.
This cool reception in his native country does not stem from lack of effort. Messi has gone out of his way to maintain ties to Rosario, his hometown. He visits frequently, keeps up his modest family home, and has made significant charitable donations. A professed Catholic, Messi dutifully presented an olive tree to the Argentine Pope Francis when he visited last year. He has also supported the victims of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. Shortly before last summer’s World Cup, Messi joined a publicity campaign of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the association of women searching for their grandchildren who were stolen from their children while detained by the military. In the ad, Messi looks into the camera and states, “For 10 World Cups we’ve been searching for you.” This comes from a fellow that hardly says anything.
So, what precisely is un-Argentine about Lionel Messi? I think the answer lies in his rejection of traditional masculinity. The ambivalence toward Lionel Messi’s argentinidad stems from a nerve center where the ideal working-class footballer intersects with masculinity and nationalism.
Whatever Messi may think about Argentine machismo, he has refused to embody it, time and time again. He does not, as legendary player Diego Maradona does, claim to pull victories from the heavens, display his sexual prowess, or mercilessly criticize other players. Instead, Messi scowls, hedges, ponders, and works hard. When nervous, he vomits on the field. He rarely dives and hardly intimidates. These traits have endeared him to millions outside of Argentina, especially British fans who accuse South Americans of playing “dirty.” But these same characteristics run counter to the ideal of the Argentine football player.
The iconic footballer, known as the pibe, emerged in 1920s Argentina with the diffusion of mass culture. The pibe is a boyish and rebellious football player hailing from the poorest parts of the country. As social scientists such as Eduardo Archetti and Pablo Alabarces have explained, the pibe exists in a “free” space, without family obligations, work, or any other shackles of adulthood. The Argentine pibe is the originator of the Creole style, a consummate dribbler who relies on individual genius. He opposes a European “mechanized” style. The virility of the pibe attracts women, who are beguiled by his innate charm, but he always puts his team and club first.
No one has brought the ideal of the pibe to life more completely than Diego Maradona. Uncontrollable on and off the field, Maradona symbolized rebellion against a militarized society. For leftist writers like Eduardo Galeano, he was a folk hero – complete with a Che Guevara tattoo and visits to Fidel Castro. Neither drug use nor cheating diminished loyalty to Maradona.
In contrast, Lionel Messi has had an ambivalent reception in Argentine. One reason that has been put forward to explain this is his allegiance to his European club, FC Barcelona. Of course, Maradona also played for Barcelona before transferring to SCC Napoli in 1984. About half of all Argentines claim some degree of Italian descent, so for many, Maradona simply made the journey to the “motherland.” In leading Naples against northern clubs like AC Milan, Maradona’s victories were interpreted as a win for the global South.
Many Argentines believe that Messi’s play is inspired more by Spain. They cite the fact that he left Argentina at a young age, albeit because Barcelona paid for the treatment Messi needed for Growth Hormone Deficiency. The Spanish national team offered him a spot on their national team. However, Messi opted for Argentina and never looked back. It should be remembered that Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano played for both the Spanish and Argentine national sides without incurring criticism.
The way that Messi wins also appears to frustrate Argentines. Last summer he led a technically inferior squad to the finals of the World Cup. The Argentines advanced with tenacity and patience, not the values that have historically impassioned their fans. During the tournament, even Messi’s grandfather criticized him on local television for not running enough and being “somewhat lazy.”
The traditional pibe is portrayed as a loquacious charmer. Take for example Maradona’s reply to the question of whether he is the best footballer ever: “My mother considered me to be the greatest footballer in the world and I think if my mother considers it then surely I am.” On the other hand, Messi responds, “Don’t talk about me as the best.” Despite a decade of superstardom, Messi has provided the world with little insight into his personal life. Perhaps there’s not much private life to share since so much of his life has transpired on and around the pitch. Nevertheless, Argentine journalists have seemingly given up on Lionel Messi. Recently, the writers for Argentina’s leading sports magazine, El Gráfico, bragged that they featured him on the cover only a few times in recent years. In their feature, the writer spent half the article chronicling his frustration with interviewing Messi.
The suggestion made by Argentine fans that somehow Carlos Tevez would have won the 2014 World Cup, because he is truly “of the people,” belies the importance of class in understanding masculinity and football. Messi is portrayed as having come from better economic circumstances than the pibe, even though Messi’s father, Jorge, worked in a steel factory and his mother was a part-time domestic servant. It is true that his family provides an emotional anchor for Messi. Instead of wearing the image of Che Guevara, Messi has two visible tattoos: one of his son and the other of his mother’s face.
The desire of Lionel Messi to be seen as a family man marks a new orientation of this generation of young football stars to fatherhood. Messi spent hardly any time as an eligible bachelor. He met his long-time partner Antonella Ruccuzzo when they were about nine years of age and started dating seriously in their late teens. This type of stability is interpreted as inherently middle class, regardless of the actual economic circumstances of Messi’s family.
The idea that Lionel Messi is the anti-Maradona is a relatively recent development. Following Messi’s international debut in 2005, sportswriter Tim Vickery declared him to be Maradona’s successor. Like Maradona, Messi is left-footed and small in stature. His short steps and low center of gravity enable him to handle the ball in a way that defenders struggle to anticipate. But he is not stocky, nor is he tough. Messi has forcefully rejected the idea that manliness is inherently violent. Last year, he worked with the Municipality of Rosario to produce a video against violence in the stadiums. Messi doesn’t talk at all in the video. Instead, he is shown crying, while images of brutal violence during games appear.
In mainstream media, Messi and Real Madrid player Cristiano Ronaldo have been defined by their rivalry. There is evidence to suggest alternative readings of this opposition, particularly by female fans. A good deal of fantasy fiction, almost exclusively online and by authors who identify as women, surrounds a torrid love affair between these two players. In some ways, Ronaldo’s conscious self-grooming also overturns traditional models of masculinity. Ronaldo is interested in fashion, has little fraternity with teammates, and has created a museum dedicated to his own image. Homophobic criticisms of Ronaldo have focused on these supposedly vain and feminine characteristics. Like Messi, Ronaldo has shown a keen interest in fatherhood. He retains full custody of his young son.
Not many Latin American writers have been interested in how changes in masculinity and football may affect women, as both fans and players. Indeed, they hardly notice the women’s game. When Argentina failed to qualify for the Women’s World Cup 2015, the sports pages were silent. Very few questioned why a country that had just competed in the finals of the men’s tournament couldn’t qualify for the women’s. In another blow, Boca Juniors’ women’s team failed last week to reach the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American club tournament. The following day, the sports pages had no coverage of the women’s tournament. Women did, however, appear in an article on the “hottest” girlfriends and wives of male players.
For nearly a century, Argentine men have found an escape from women and domestic obligation within football. Thus, female players are viewed as threatening, on the pitch and in the clubhouse. In the stands, fans insult the masculinity of opposing teams by characterizing them as feminine and questioning their heterosexuality. To be feminine is to be weak. It follows that excellent female footballers are contradictions. Women footballers suffer harassment, or alternately, complete disinterest. The Argentine Football Association has not provided the thirteen professional women’s clubs with technical support, decent facilities, or publicity. To make matters worse, female coaches are terrified of being accused of improper sexual behavior towards others, and report that their community is on “high alert.”
The first election of a woman as president in 2007 and the passage of gay marriage legislation in 2010 demonstrate the success of feminist and LGBT movements in Argentina. However, NGOs have reported what some have called a “backlash,” which has included an increase in domestic violence and homophobic hate crimes. Last month when a video emerged showing Maradona abusing his former girlfriend, it elicited none of the outrage it should have.
Challenges to the traditional icon of the pibe could help open spaces for female athletes by associating new traits with athletic excellence. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if Argentina embraced a hero who respected women, valued fatherhood, and rejected violence, its football culture would be more inclusive. Thus far, however, sportswriters, fan clubs, and directors in Argentina have been unwilling to reconsider the value of the pibe. If Lionel Messi continues to reject trappings of Argentine machismo, his relationship to that crowd is likely to remain fraught with tension.
Brenda Elsey is associate professor of history at Hofstra University. She is author of Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile. You can follow her on Twitter at @.