Lionel Messi returns for Maracaná coronation against Brazil in crisis

<span>Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Lionel Messi has felt many different emotions at the Maracanã. It was in the iconic Brazilian stadium that he suffered his biggest career defeat: the 2014 World Cup final. The loss brought strong criticism that shook the Argentina talisman for years. But it was also in Rio that he won the Copa América in 2021, his first title for the national team and which paved the way for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Two years after winning the South American title, Lionel Messi returns to the Maracanã on Tuesday for a World Cup qualifier at the perfect moment. Facing a Brazil in crisis, lost and full of instability since their elimination in Qatar, Messi could have his final coronation, with the recognition and applause of the rival fans in what is one of the greatest classics in world football.

“It would be an achievement for Messi to be cheered in Brazil. It’s a game at the Maracanã, a world classic game,” says the former Brazil left-back Adriano, who played with Messi between 2010 and 2016 at Barcelona.

“I’d approve if it happened. It would really honour his career. It would be historic. Even though he’s Argentinian, it’s recognition for what he represents to world football.”

Adriano closely followed Messi’s ups and downs over six seasons. There were many many more positive moments, of course, but the lows always affected the No 10. “I often saw him upset at the criticism for never winning the World Cup. There was always a lot of pressure on him to be like Maradona and to win the World Cup.”

The most painful defeat was the 1-0 final defeat against Germany in 2014. The failure in Brazil was followed by devastating defeats in two other finals, against Chile at the Copa América in 2015 and 2016. After the second one, Messi even announced his retirement from the national team, a decision he reversed two months later.

Messi looks glum after receiving the golden ball trophy rather than the one he really wanted after the 2014 World Cup final.
Messi looks glum after receiving the golden ball trophy rather than the one he really wanted after the 2014 World Cup final. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

In one of the rare interviews he gave during that period, he vented his frustration at being treated as a “failure” by the press, a situation even his young son, Thiago, had picked up on.

“My six-year-old son asks me why they criticise me so much in Argentina,” he said. “I tell him it’s just a few, not all. He knows that people like me,” Messi said in 2019.

The frustration Messi expressed in that interview haunted him for a long time, and had been clear to Adriano when his teammate returned to Barcelona after the World Cup five years previously.

“He came back with that bitter taste. It can’t be any different after coming so close to winning something important. There was a lot of pressure on him and people questioned the fact that he wasn’t Argentinian because he went to Spain very young. He was very sad about it because people didn’t see him as a reference person in the country, that he didn’t have a relationship with the country, but it’s completely wrong. It’s the opposite. He suffers a lot with the country. He always had a lot of feeling for Argentina.”

One of the turning points for Messi was winning the 2021 Copa América, a tournament marked by off-field controversies. After Argentina and Colombia refused to host matches because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil stepped in and was criticised by health experts. In addition to the negative image of holding the tournament in a country that had more than 700,000 deaths from Covid-19, Argentina won the title, with Messi ending a 29-year trophyless streak by the national team in an empty Maracanã.

“The Copa América title made people see Messi differently,” says Adriano. “They [Argentinians] saw the feeling and how he celebrated the title. That really helped him win the World Cup and become one of the greatest figures in Argentina’s history.”

Despite the rivalry with Argentina, Messi is not a hated figure in Brazil. On the contrary, most people have a feeling of admiration for one of the greatest players ever. In the 2022 World Cup final and his individual duel with Kylian Mbappé, Messi had the wide support of Brazilians because Neymar is one of his best friends, and Neymar’s relationship with the France forward has never been friendly.

“Everyone wanted him to win so he could make football history,” says Adriano. “He’s turned things around not only because of his quality, but also because of his intelligence and his teammateship. He always fights. There is no way not to run for him. It was a privilege to have learned and lived with him for six years.”

Yet while Messi is enjoying a World Cup honeymoon with Argentina fans, Brazil are going through one of the biggest crises in their history. In addition to having not won a World Cup since 2002, equalling the longest run from 1970 to 1994, the Seleção are in chaos.

Since Tite’s departure after Qatar 2022, Brazil have not had an official coach. The Brazilian Football Confederation president, Ednaldo Rodrigues, says he has an agreement with Carlo Ancelotti, of Real Madrid, to take over in May next year, but the Italian has never confirmed the deal, nor has he given any sign that there is a possibility of taking over the team for the 2024 Copa América.

Lionel Messi consoles Neymar after Argentina’s triumph in the 2021 Copa América final at the Maracana.
Messi consoles Neymar after Argentina’s triumph in the 2021 Copa América final at the Maracaná. Photograph: Gustavo Pagano/Getty Images

Until the new coach arrives, caretaker Fernando Diniz is in a curious situation, with a double shift. In addition to being coach of the Seleção, he also manages Fluminense. His club will play against São Paulo on Wednesday, with the coach once again at the Maracanã less than 24 hours after Brazil face Argentina.

As well as not having a definitive coach, Brazil are missing big idols. Neymar is 31, injured again and will be out of action for the next few months. The same goes for Vinícius Júnior, who should be the Al-Hilal player’s successor as team leader. Without idols, the country is trying to cling to the past. Jorginho, the former right-back who won the World Cup in 1994 and is now a coach, sees the moment as similar to the one he experienced almost two decades ago.

“In 1994, we were under a lot of pressure, but at the same time, we realised that it was our big chance to put our name down in the history of Brazilian and world football. It’s at times of difficulty that you have the chance to change your story,” he says.

Another 1994 winner Branco, the former left-back who is now coordinator of Brazil’s youth teams, agrees and demands more from experienced players in the squad.

“Every cycle you don’t win, your work is questioned,” he says. “In 1994, I was in my third World Cup. The pressure is there, but over time you learn to deal with each situation better. I knew what needed to be done and I used that experience to my advantage. Me and the ‘dinosaurs’, the group of older players, had the task of looking after the younger players. That worked out very well.”