Saturday 9 June 2012 is a day that Lionel Messi will remember forever. In helping himself to a hat-trick against Brazil in New Jersey – the second of his international career and his first against A Selecão – the three-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner finally earned hero status among the Albiceleste fans.
The Argentina captain unveiled his full repertoire of skills in his dazzling display against the Brazilians: sublime close control and mazy dribbling in the final third combined with deadly finishing, all his three goals coming with his left foot to secure a memorable 4-3 friendly win for his country.
“He’s been in exceptional form for a while now, and we’re lucky he’s Argentinian and plays for us,” said Albiceleste coach Alejandro Sabella in his post-match press conference.
“We won today because Lio played for Argentina. If he’d played for Brazil, they would have won,” added team-mate Angel Di Maria, while close friend Sergio Aguero was also effusive in his praise: “He’s going to be the best until the day he retires.”
Aside from those warm words, there were plenty of other tributes for the diminutive magician. After making off with yet another match ball for his personal collection, Messi expressed his gratitude to Brazilian starlet Neymar, who asked him for his jersey at the final whistle, and posed for photos with each of his team-mates in the dressing room. Those images were later posted on his colleagues’ Twitter accounts, while the world’s leading media sites got in on the act, adorning their reports with images of the global idol.
“That what makes me happiest of all,” commented the hero of the hour. “I never fail to be surprised when my team-mates and colleagues ask to have their photos taken with me or write things about me. A few of us have been around for a while and we’ve not been having an easy time of it with the results we’ve been getting. It’s really nice to be enjoying this now, though.”
Rising to the occasion
Now his country’s fourth-highest scorer on 26 goals, behind Gabriel Batistuta (56), Hernan Crespo (35) and Diego Maradona (34), Messi seems to come into his own when Brazil provide the opposition. At youth and senior level, he has scored six goals in nine matches, five of those games ending in victories, three in defeat and one in a draw, a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match in Belo Horizonte in 2008, when he was applauded off the pitch by the Brazilian fans.
“It’s always nice to beat Brazil, especially when I score three goals, though I prefer to focus on the team’s performance,” said the ever-modest Messi. “I get more out of team successes than individual ones.”
Having now scored eight goals in his last four appearances for La Albiceleste, however, even he admits that he is in the form of his life for his country: “I don’t know what’s changed. The good thing is that we’re on a roll now: we’re winning games and growing as a team. We’re finding our way. On a personal level, I always try to do things the same way as with Barcelona. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Today I feel very happy.”
And so he should. Following a gruelling season littered with countless individual achievements, the Argentinian ace has now silenced the few critics he had left in his homeland by turning in the kind of displays for his country that have earned him global recognition in the Barcelona shirt.
“I’ve never been applauded like that here before,” he said after helping to dismantle Ecuador at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires a week ago. The applause will no doubt crank up a notch or two the next time he runs out for Argentina, a nation that has finally fallen at his feet.