Alexander Netherton: The writer is a freelance football journalist who has contributed for ESPN, Huffington Post and Bleacher Report, among othersLionel Messi is an enigma. Not because of what he says and does on the pitch, but because we don’t know what he says and does off it. England striker,Alexander Netherton: The writer is a freelance football journalist who has contributed for ESPN, Huffington Post and Bleacher Report, among othersLionel Messi is an enigma. Not because of what he says and does on the pitch, but because we don’t know what he says and does off it. England striker Wayne Rooney has given interviews describing the thought process of scoring a goal. Swedish powerhouse Zlatan Ibrahimovic tells us he is his own biggest fan. Portugal’s talisman Cristiano Ronaldo proves something similar. We are rarely in doubt over these players-they embrace the attention. The Argentine Messi plays as if he invented the game, with a talent that appears genetic, but he seems content to leave it at that: The best player since Diego Maradona.Maradona was Argentina’s last World Cup superstar, winning it in Mexico 1986. He is feted as a hero of the country, a product of its poorest communities. He is loved; Messi is not. Similar to Maradona in many ways-in his supernatural ability and balance-Messi is removed from Argentina, sentimentally and physically. If, however, he wins the World Cup this summer, that would surely change.Argentina themselves face a relatively simple start to the tournament, with a fortunate draw in their qualifying group. Pitted against Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria in Group F, the squad has an abundance of attacking talent, with Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain. However, it has a weak defence. Argentina can test the abilities of any of the defences at the World Cup, but Messi and his attacking teammates may not be able to do enough to prevent defeat. Sergio Romero, the goalkeeper, loaned to Monaco last season, rarely played for them, and defender Martin Demichelis is a figure of fun because of his propensity to look like a figure of fun. With the exception of Ezequiel Garay, the defence is lacking. They are still favourites to top their group, but it would be a surprise if their defence copes against the best sides.advertisementDespite this, after years of underperforming, and of a lack of talent in key positions, this might be the best chance of success that Argentina have had in some years-all of which puts immense pressure on Messi. Having moved to Barcelona aged 13-the club offered to pay for essential Human Growth Hormone treatment as he stopped growing as a child-Messi still has the accent of his hometown, Rosario. He retains an interest in Argentine cuisine, and has not culturally assimilated in Spain. He made his name in Spain, with La Liga and Champions League success, but is not thought of as Catalan or Spanish. Similarly, in Argentina, he is regarded as something of an ‘other’. Lionel MessiHis footballing identity is clear, and this may be why he stands apart from his national teammates. Schooled at La Masia, the famous training ground at Barcelona where players are indoctrinated with the side’s approach of short passes and technical excellence, he is entirely a Barcelona player. It was here that the man who oversaw Messi’s greatest period of success, Pep Guardiola, established himself as one of the most impressive modern coaches. When he took over the first team, he won both the Champions League and La Liga in his first season. Plenty more followed. His blueprint was to use a core of players schooled at La Masia who followed the idea of tiki taka-retaining the ball with relentless short passes, one of the most mentally exhausting approaches to use, and physically exhausting to face. They were Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodreguez and Sergio Busquets, besides Messi.All excellent players, but indisputably the greatest was Messi. He scored goals of all kinds, goals of rare beauty that, with his consistently excellent form, he made common. Spain took these Barca players and used their modus operandi of constant possession to win the World Cup and consecutive European Championships.Not Quite Argentine Enough?In Argentina it is different. Argentina play their own way: More direct and less sophisticated. It’s a style that other players might be more accustomed to, but Messi is less effective when he is not with those who play the game at its peak. At Barcelona, as he broke into the first team, he was brought under the wing of the Brazilian aesthetes who recognised just how special he was. At Argentina, there has been no concerted effort to bring him into the fold, nor is there any indication that he seems to want to be part of the family. There is really only one example of emotion for the national team, when he was sent off on his debut and burst into tears-but that could simply be personal disappointment rather than patriotism.advertisementMessi (left) takes a free kick for Barcelona against Atletico Madrid during their 2014 Champions League quarter-final first leg match at camp nouIt is also different because of the 365 goals he has scored for Barcelona, a majority of them having been imbued with a meaning, coming in seasons that ended in success. For Argentina, he has scored 37 in 83 games, but all of them are simply goals that didn’t win a trophy. Some might point out that he won the Olympics in 2008, but it is not seen with any affection by players or fans. Simply put, until he wins something for Argentina, he will not mean anything to Argentina. In his hometown even, there is little evidence they are proud to have produced him, perhaps because there is a feeling that with his experience at Barcelona, he is not really theirs anymore.Argentina treats other players with the reverence Messi is not afforded. The nation focuses on players who play a position that is a national tradition: The enganche or hook. Through this position, the enganche is the playmaker who starts the attacks, and if he performs as he should, appears languid, sophisticated and elegant. He will not need a burst of pace, and he will not score countless goals. The most recent players of this kind are Juan Roman Riquelme, who left Barcelona before Messi established himself and was a relative failure there, and Juan Sebastian Veron, who retired this season with Estudiantes, finally and for the second time, at the club where he had started his career.These two players were divisive figures in a way that Messi is not. Everybody knows that Messi is the best player Argentina has, and its best since Maradona. Yet, there is nobody to passionately take up the cause of Messi because there is nobody who could rationally take up the case against him. He has been consistently the best player in Europe in recent years, and therefore the best in the world. Riquelme and Veron, however, are anachronistic characters on the field. They played the game at a tempo slow enough to be outmoded, so there is a romance to using the position, even as the rest of the world tried to leave them behind, only to be brought to its knees by occasionally devastating passes and beauty. The fleeting nature of their genius is somehow more romantic than Messi’s ability to be brilliant in almost every match. They are inherently Argentine in the way they play, Messi is inherently Messi.Messi is the product of modern football teamed with a genius that allows him at once to define it and at the same time rise above it. He is a recipient of modern medical science. While his use of Human Growth Hormone is unusual, it is part of a newly technological treatment of injuries and development of fitness that has created superhuman footballers. Players now can feature in up to 70 games a season, at full throttle. They can recover from serious knee injuries in six months that as recently as the 1990s would have ended careers. They run at incredible speeds, staying upright while being buffeted by other players. Messi, famous for his balance and indeed a rare reticence to fall under such challenges, is the best example of this strength, except perhaps for his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s presence and brashness highlights what Messi is not. It is through the Portuguese player that we often try to understand Messi, noting the differences.advertisementOther ‘Best Players In The World’Ronaldo, the other Best Player In The World Today, is vain. He strips to the waist upon scoring a goal in the Champions League final to make sure the cameras get his best feature. There were endless rumours that he was desperate to overhaul Messi as the best. Ronaldo doesn’t want to be the best he can be, as much as he wants to be better than everyone else. Because of his own quiet approach in comparison, Messi often appeared humble and modest. Recent contract negotiations that made him the best paid player in the world, and also charges of tax evasion, hint that this could be merely a superficial assumption.Messi with Barcelona team mates Xavi (Centre) and Iniesta (left)Another player comparison also contrasts with Messi, and shows why he is not adored at home yet. His new Barcelona teammate, Neymar, is just 22, and has a close relationship with Brazil. He stayed in Brazil for his formative years, so the national hype started at a young age. Success in the domestic league drew interest from across the country on a weekly basis, and the lower quality of play in Brazil made Neymar’s talents look even better by contrast. Neymar’s embrace of a jaunty image of extravagant haircuts and commercial prominence raised his profile in Brazil unmatched by Messi’s in Argentina. Messi is not known for his nightlife, but Neymar is seen having fun. In some ways, Argentina can’t fall in love with Messi because he gives them nothing to fall in love with.After a disappointing season, the World Cup is Messi’s last chance before he gets back on the treadmill for Barcelona. This year, he scored 41 goals, his lowest haul since 2008-9. A World Cup would take away this pain, but it would mean more than that. A World Cup win would mean that he would have an identity in his home country. It would mean finally moving on from the period of Barcelona dominance defined by Guardiola, who left in 2012. It would possibly even remove any doubt in the discussion between who really is best, Ronaldo or Messi. But as to what it would actually mean to him, rather than to all of us who speculate, it’s almost impossible to say.The writer is a freelance football journalist who has contributed for ESPN, Huffington Post and Bleacher Report, among others. To read more, get your copy of India Today here.