LONDON — Neymar is broken. Cristiano Ronaldo left without a trace. Luis Suárez disgraced himself. And, according to his own grandfather, the real Lionel Messi has not shown up at this World Cup.
With all due respect to Antonio Cuccitini, Messi’s grandfather, he is missing something rather special. The old man is looking for the boyish Messi who, with the smile of a child, danced with the ball around clusters of opponents for fun.
“Leo doesn’t run like he used to,” Grandpa Cuccitini told Canal 3 TV during an interview in the family’s hometown of Rosario, Argentina, on Messi’s 27th birthday just over a week ago. “In Spain, he was electric, he would leave 22 players feeling dizzy. Now, I don’t know what is wrong.”
Maybe none of us know what is happening with Messi. It is true that there is currently less joy in his play, yet there appears at the same time to be a transformation, a sublimation of skills for the benefit of the team.
Messi at this tournament isn’t the impish, irresistible scamp darting in and out of crowded penalty boxes to score seemingly at will, as he did earlier in his career. Some Argentine dubbed him “La Pulga” — the flea — for the way the diminutive boy flitted and flickered with his ball, daring opponents to stop him, all the while mesmerizing them.
The flea is morphing into a catalyst. He wears the armband as a captain, making others play around him. The comparison with Diego Maradona winning, or helping Argentina to win the 1986 World Cup, weighs heavily upon Messi.
Maradona, Argentina’s idol of the 1986 World Cup, and Pelé, Brazil’s three-time World Cup winner, are watching in the stands. Maybe they know what Messi is going through and understand that while he may seem less electric, this change could push his national team to the title that everyone says he needs to compare with his idols.
This transformation in Messi’s style on the field is not at all unappealing. Two things happened to change him, as a player and a person, over the past two years. He became a father late in 2012 when his son Thiago was born. And he spent much of the following season recovering from a series of muscle problems in his thighs and knees.
That time spent cut off from his obsession with the ball — time fretting about his body’s ability to tolerate all those twists and turns — appears to have made him rethink his game.
Instead of always trying to thrill the crowds, taking on any number of defenders and with his verve and his swerve evading their heavy shoes, he would slow down. Instead of relying upon Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, with their wonderful, selfless passing ability, he would take his turn to drop deeper into midfield, and perhaps supply such passes to others in front of him, or on the wings.
The dazzler becomes the provider. Messi still has scored four of Argentina’s eight goals in this tournament thus far. And marvelous, solo goals they have been as well, grabbing victories out of stalemates in tight and absorbing contests.
But the run and the pass allowing Ángel di María to strike the last-ditch winner against Switzerland last week was still Messi’s “goal” because he sucked in three defenders toward him, created the space and then freed di María to score.
A similar thing unlocked Belgium in Saturday’s quarterfinal. There was the Messi magic, the beguiling way that he tricked Kevin De Bruyne and Marouane Fellaini in the same move, and instigated the opening from which Gonzalo Higuaín handsomely stroked the game winner, for his first goal of the tournament.
“It is just an ordinary team,” said Belgium’s coach, Marc Wilmots, of the Argentines.
Argentina’s coach, Alejandro Sabella, countered, “He is water in the desert.”
“When the terrain is dry, he gives us that breath of fresh air every time he has the ball,” Sabella, a former midfield player, added.
“It is not only about scoring goals. He draws three or four opponents. He endangers the opponent; the influence that he has is decisive.”
Look back to that moment when Messi sparked the goal against Belgium. There was the turn to his left to shepherd the ball from De Bruyne, followed immediately by a pirouette, still with the ball under his control, that made the tall, angular Fellaini look as awkward as a giraffe trying to put a hoof onto a mouse.
There Messi is, and then he, and his precious ball, are gone. A mirage, perhaps, but with a purpose.
In the same game, during which Messi was reported to be quiet, he delivered a 40-yard pass that dissected the massed Belgians and then curved, with the slight backspin he applied, into the path of a teammate on the run.
There is more happening to Messi in every performance than meets the eye. His grandfather is also concerned, as many in Argentina must be, about the vomiting on the field earlier in the tournament that was not satisfactorily explained as the pressure Messi is under.
On Saturday, he equaled Maradona’s total of 91 caps for their country. Messi’s 42 goals in that time eclipses Maradona’s 34, but unless he brings home the trophy that Maradona did 28 years ago from Mexico, Messi knows he will suffer by comparison with his compatriot, and his idol.
But since Messi could not, or would not, express in words what he displays in skills, we have to translate for him. He appears to me to be deliberately changing his style, at times even disengaging from the team in order to lead it. The “boy” we so admired is growing into a responsible adult, a leader.