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Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

Waiting for Messi: Will 2014 finally be the genius’ year?

Lionel Messi

y the time this column comes out, I'll be either exhausted or still riding on a gargantuan fake-sugar rush. Three nights into the football World Cup, I should have already witnessed one game of the team that I've been supporting since I witnessed back-to-back matches of world-class football via the 1986 World Cup in Mexico: Argentina.

Pundits talk about how football at this highest level has moved away from individual brilliance — Johann Cryuff in 1974, Zico in 1982, Diego Maradona in 1986, Zinedine Zidane in 1998, not to mention Romania's Gheorghe Hagi in 1994 and Chile's Marcelo Salas in 1998 — to a sport where successful cohesion of a team overwhelms anything else. I'm not too sure that this module of footballing "evolutions" fits. The truth is that some teams are packed with talent and at the same time have geniuses frolicking among them.

Take the 1970 and 1982 Brazil teams. As two prime avatars of the Seleção — literally, the Selection or the Squad, underlining the molecular nature of a football team that gives it flavour, weight and ability — both squads were packed with extraordinary footballers. The 1970 World Cup-winning team had Pelé, Jairzinho, Tostão and Rivelino. The 1982 World Cup "Selection" had Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Cerezo. In hindsight, we read the names. But in real time, what took place in the fields of Mexico '70 and Spain '82 were PeléJairzinhoTostãoRivelino and ZicoSocratesFalcaoCerezo.

Novy Kapadia in The Football Fanatic's Essential Guide — a sacramental object that I have tied to my elbow throughout the month — rightly notes the 'transition' in Brazilian World Cup football that took place in that fateful Group C second stage match against ultimate champions, Italy on 5 July 1982 in Barcelona. "Brazil's loss 2-3 was like the end of an era, withering away of individual brilliance and the truimph of the system. From then on individual attacking talent has been incorporated into a system." 

For Brazilians, it was the day on which futebol-arte was usurped by futebol-força (power football)... The defeat, however, was more prosaic: Brazil’s midfield, magnificent as it was, could not mask their frailties in defence and up front. — Andreas Campomar

s Andreas Campomar writes of the same episode in Golazo: A History of Latin American Football, "For Brazilians, it was the day on which futebol-arte was usurped by futebol-força (power football)... The defeat, however, was more prosaic: Brazil's midfield, magnificent as it was, could not mask their frailties in defence and up front." Speaking of the upcoming 2010 World Cup to Alex Bellos, Socrates described the Brazil side with Dunga as its manager being the epitome of the futebol-força variety. "It is a very bureaucratic team, very conservative... they'll have problems," he said, responding to Bellos' query about whether Dunga's not simply being sensible with: "Being sensible isn't always the best thing. Who says that being sensible is a sign of quality? I don't think so." It would be Spain — in many people's eyes a Barcelona squad minus the Argentine Lionel Messi — that, with its flamboyance and organic passing play, would lift the Cup that year.

Which makes me come to the object of my hope and concern: Argentina. "Maradona's successor" and true-blue footballing genius Messi didn't score a single goal in the last World Cup. He looked awkward, unsure and if we saw flashes of the genius that was on default button during his games while wearing Barcelona's colours, it was because we had the foreknowledge that he possessed that genius, and not because of what was on display.

The Germany-Argentina pre-quarterfinal that saw Messi's squad looted 0-4 showed up a team that had 11 individuals. The effect was not dissimilar to Argentina minus Maradona in 1994, when the Argentine was thrown out of the tournament after being tested positive for drugs. Or the seismic jitters felt by France in 1998 when Zidane was red-carded in the group match against Saudi Arabia and missed two crucial matches.

Barcelona's Messi has to click with Argentina's seleção. Only then will Argentina — and Messi — be operationalised.

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