Lionel Messi can never be the man Argentina wants him to be, since that man is Diego Maradona.
So as Messi competes in his third World Cup, his best hope to win over his countrymen is with victories. The first came Sunday night at Estadio do Maracana, where Argentina opened Group F play with a 2-1 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Full match report)
The game seemed a microcosm of Messi's Argentina career, in which he has for years been his country's best player but rarely its favorite. His jersey was well represented in the boisterously pro-Argentina crowd, and the cheers were deafening when he was introduced and when, less than three minutes later, he created the opening goal with a driven free kick. (In pics: Argentina fans celebrate team's first win)
But in between ovations he was hectored by defenders, cajoled by the masses and, at one point, even roundly booed after wasting a chance in a 1-0 game.
Still, with one shimmering run across the top of the penalty area and a rocketed shot, Messi won the fans back. (Related read: Messi thanks fans, coach for win)
The move took only a moment, but it reminded everyone of what Messi can offer with a tiny bit of space and a burst of uncatchable speed. Taking the ball on the right wing he accelerated past one defender and then nudged the ball around two more. Before anyone could yell for him to shoot the ball, it was gone, pinging in off the left post behind Bosnia goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
As Messi tugged on his jersey and shouted with joy (or was it relief?), the fans danced. As he walked back to midfield for the restart, tens of thousands of them bowed toward his back.
Bosnia added a consolation goal by the U.S.-born striker Vedad Ibisevic in the 85th minute, but that merely paused the adoration of Messi. There was no stopping it.
Bosnia's first night at the World Cup could not have started much worse. A foul won far out on the left by Argentina's Sergio Aguero set up a free kick. Messi curled the ball toward Argentina defender Marcos Rojo at the penalty spot, where he flicked it on in the general direction of a teammate. But the ball landed instead at the feet of Bosnia defender Sead Kolasinac, and when it got tangled between them, he awkwardly redirected it into his own net.
Less than three minutes in, Bosnia had been staggered. The team slowly steadied itself by coolly working the ball around, if only to keep it away from Messi, and went on to create some of the half's best chances: Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero dashed off his line to stop Izet Hajrovic in the 13th minute and dived to his left to stop a point-blank header in the 40th.
The teams had met in a friendly in St. Louis in November, with Argentina using a similar five-back formation and two Aguero goals to produce a 2-0 win. But on Sunday, the five-back setup rarely looked defensive; the outside backs, Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta, were often farther forward than even Messi. The problem was that, except for rare occasions, Messi could not find the room to do much with them, or for himself.
The introduction of another striker, Gonzalo Higuain, at halftime seemed an admission by coach Alejandro Sabella that Messi needed some better options directly in front of him, or perhaps just someone else for the Bosnian defenders to worry about. But Argentina had qualified with ease in a 4-3-3 formation, and it soon went to work.
Aguero found space on the left with increasing regularity, and that began to open the middle. After Aguero won a free kick in the 63rd minute, Messi skied it over the bar, and his fans booed. When he scored minutes later, all was forgiven.
Argentina is hoping this tournament finally brings out the best in Messi, who made his debut in the event with a goal in 2006 and then struggled under Maradona in 2010, when the team's cluttered attacking formations never brought out his best. Messi, naturally, took more of the blame than Maradona.
Argentina bottomed out at the 2011 Copa America, where Messi was mercilessly booed by his home fans, but he has had a revival under Sabella. Sabella's first move was to name Messi his captain, and his star responded by leading the team in scoring as it finished first in South American qualifying.
© 2014 New York Times News Service