From Maradona To Messi: The Spirit Carries On

Perhaps the moment that best symbolised the significance of Argentina’s World Cup triumph in Qatar came, and fittingly so, when Gonzalo Montiel buried the decisive kick in the shootout. While those standing beside Lionel Messi burst into a euphoric sprint towards the point of action, Messi simply fell to his knees and flung up his […]

Perhaps the moment that best symbolised the significance of Argentina’s World Cup triumph in Qatar came, and fittingly so, when Gonzalo Montiel buried the decisive kick in the shootout. While those standing beside Lionel Messi burst into a euphoric sprint towards the point of action, Messi simply fell to his knees and flung up his arm, casting aside everything and allowing himself to drown in the very moment that he must have pictured thousands of times in his mind. Lionel Messi was now a World Cup winner — one of the factual truths whose beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.

For an old man, who grew up on a steady diet of Diego Maradona’s heroism, it represented the passing of the baton. For an Internet warrior who has spent a considerable chunk of their life defending their idol, the moment marked the vindication of their thoughts. For those who needed a World Cup title in Messi’s CV to accept his greatness, this moment became closure. For someone like John Mathew, an 18-year-old football fan from Kerala, it was simply, sporting justice.

Mathew recalls how Argentina’s elimination four years ago left his entire family disappointed. “But the defeat also strengthened our bond with La Albiceleste,” he says. “The entire family burst into joy after Argentina’s victory was secured. Our grandfathers usually sleep early but they too stayed awake to see Messi lifting the trophy,” says Mathew, who is also a member of Manjappada, the fan club of Kerala Blasters.

Mathew inherited the love for Argentina from his father who, like many of his generation, grew up admiring Maradona. The Argentine legend still remains the most revered footballer in the Indian subcontinent. It’s not that there hasn’t been any great footballer since Maradona’s retirement, but none of them commanded the level of adulation that he did.

“Maradona’s glittering legend was forged in the 1986 World Cup, which was, coincidentally, the first tournament to be televised in India,” explains Debanjan Banerjee, a behavioural economist who also studies football through the cultural lens. “During those times, many people in Bangladesh used to tune in their antennae to match the Indian frequency to watch these games,” he remembers.

But that alone doesn’t explain such a deep-rooted fandom for a country that most of them would not ever visit in their lifetime. In every World Cup year, we see the fandom predominantly splitting into Argentinian and Brazilian factions. Even though the World Cup last year happened at a neutral venue, the support was massively skewed towards Lionel Messi & Co. in each of their games.

You could see the white and blue canvas draping the entire stadium. Elsewhere, in states like Kerala and West Bengal, people flocked in their Argentinian jerseys to watch the public screenings of their games. Some even went as far as to paint their entire house in the colours of the Argentinian team. In the Kollam district of Kerala, a brawl broke out between the impassioned fans in Brazil and Argentina jerseys.

“It was pandemonium. The entire city went crazy after Argentina won the final. We had public screenings at several squares, and everyone was rooting for Argentina,” says Mathew. There’s something very radical about this unwavering support among Indians. It rises above the pervasive national identity that is closely tied to the history of modern sports. Of course, the absence of their own country means they can only cheer for others.

“Argentina’s football team is often perceived as a mere extension of their own community. Even though Maradona is Caucasian, the subcontinent identified with his off-field antics, his humble upbringings, and the leftist politics he espoused throughout his career,” quips Banerjee. While Maradona’s exploits on the field made him everyone’s favourite, his story of rising from abject poverty to reach the pinnacle of the game added an indelible layer to his myth.

For a newly forged nation like India, Maradona was a symbol of hope. He showed that it was possible to create beauty and beat affluent Europeans at their own game. But how has the Argentinian fandom endured after Maradona bid adieu to the football? “Fandom is a function of time,” says Banerjee, who also makes documentary videos on Indian football culture for COPA 90. “Once the identity is established, it needs to be reintroduced periodically. Or else, it gets erased with the passage of time. Argentinian fandom must have taken a beating in the era between Maradona’s retirement and Messi’s emergence,” he says.

Fair to say, Messi’s emergence added zing to the fanbase that seemed to dwindle gradually after 1990. After quite a long time, they had someone who looked promising enough of inspiring Argentina to a World Cup victory. People who grew up during Maradona’s era could see the reflection of their idol in Messi. From his unreal vision to his ability to glide through a maze of defenders, Messi’s game felt eerily similar to Maradona’s.

Moreover, Messi’s continuous failure to claim the elusive title also added a sense of sympathy towards him. Barring his first World Cup in 2006, Messi arrived in each of the subsequent editions as the centre of attraction, the favourite, but only to return home empty-handed. Everyone knew this was the last realistic chance for him, and they wanted to see the greatest star of modern football laying his hand on the most popular trophy. Messi didn’t disappoint. He was the metronome of the spirited Argentine side, and successfully led a bunch of enterprising boys to glory. There were goals in each stage of the knockout rounds, including two in the final, in which he was stretched to his physical and mental limits, to an extent that he wouldn’t have expected when Argentina were cruising with a two-goal cushion. But with all said and done, we can say that the suffering only elevated the enormity of the occasion, heightening the myth around the man. Messi waited his entire life to lift the trophy, so a nonexistent God decided to make him wait further.

It was a night of fulfilment for Messi, where he joined his spiritual ancestor Maradona, and kept the flames of Argentinian support alive across the world. But what would be the trajectory of this fanbase after Messi’s retirement? Will we find another hero who will keep us hooked to La Albiceleste? Or will there be a mass migration to other teams? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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