Lionel Messi was often criticised over the years for not delivering on the biggest stage for his country, and not being a natural leader, but he well and truly put those claims to bed by captaining Argentina to Copa America and World Cup triumphs.
“Messi’s a great player, but he’s not a leader,” the legendary Diego Maradona said back in 2018. “Before talking to the coach and players, he’ll play on the PlayStation. Then, on the field, he wants to be the leader.”
But now Messi has followed the iconic No.10 by playing a talismanic role in winning the most prestigious trophy in football. The 35-year-old was a brilliant leader in Qatar – at least according to his manager and team-mates, who have expressed nothing but love and admiration for their captain.
Here are 10 Argentinians on Messi’s inspiration and influence.
“He is a football leader, you can see that, but when he speaks he says the right words,” the Argentina manager told Universo Valdano.
“And I’ve never seen what he transmits to his teammates, not only as a footballer. In any person. It’s difficult, I can talk about it, but people would have to experience what he transmits when he speaks.
“How his teammates look at him, the way they look at him, with admiration… it’s very difficult to explain.”
Rodrigo De Paul
“You look up to him obviously, but when you start sharing things with him, he is so transparent that instead of telling him what you think of him, you feel more like asking him about his little kids or of reminding him of the time he took you out with his studs up in a Valencia-Barcelona game,” the midfielder told FIFA back in 2020.
“When he becomes your captain, you’d go to war for him if he asked you to.
“The key thing is that everyone knows what they’re expected to do, nobody is trying to hog the headlines. The only untouchable one is Leo. The rest of us contribute by doing whatever is asked of us.”
Angel Di Maria
“The 2008 Olympics changed my whole life. Argentina called me to play for the team even though I wasn’t starting for Benfica. I will never forget that,” Di Maria recalled in a piece for The Players’ Tribune.
“That tournament gave me the opportunity to play with Leo Messi, the extraterrestrial, the genius. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. All I had to do was run into space. I would start running, and the ball would arrive at my feet. Like magic.
Leo’s eyes don’t work like your eyes and my eyes work. They look side to side, like a human. But he’s also able to see the world from above, like a bird. I don’t understand how it’s possible.
“We were able to make it all the way to the final against Nigeria, and it was probably the most incredible day of my life. To score the goal to win the gold medal for Argentina … you can’t even imagine that feeling.”
What’s it like playing alongside Messi?
Ángel Di María explains his magic. ✨
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) February 23, 2023
“We had said it in the Copa America, that he had to win it. I was doing it for my country first and then for him,” the Aston Villa goalkeeper told AFA Estudio.
“For me, being world champion was not an individual achievement. I wanted the collective, for my country, but then to do it for Leo was the finishing touch, because he’s the guy who deserves it more than anyone else.
“Because of his humility, because of what he generates for the country, to have him in front of us is a bonus.
“With Julian, with Enzo, with Mac Allister, all the new players who came in adapted and knew what they had to do so that he could be free and make a difference.
“I write him a message or speak to him and he does everything, he goes out of his way for us and we go out of our way for him.”
“I’ve always said Leo Messi was a player I look up to. I’ve always tried to learn from him. He’s a great person and has given me love and support within the team. I also had to face him when I played for Benfica in the Champions League, as he played for PSG. Right after that, we became team-mates in the Argentina squad,” Fernandez told Chelsea’s official website.
“He’s a great person. Very humble, hard-working. He deserves everything he’s achieved in football.
“I remember we went through tough times with the squad, and the press criticised Leo [Messi] so harshly. I tried to explain how I feel about him. I asked him to stay, as he said he wouldn’t play for the team anymore. I defended him to stay with us, playing for the squad. I was pretty young back then!” the midfielder added about the letter he’d written to Messi as a youngster.
“He means a lot to everyone in the world. He’s a legend for Argentina. He’s a loved person, an idol for all Argentinians, for our children. As a person, I have no complaints about him. He’s always given me so much love. He’s always respected me and was a great team-mate in all senses. I’m very thankful for having played with him.
Enzo Fernandez on Facebook in 2016, after Messi annouced his retirement from Argentina NT.
Read fully, it’s beautiful words ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Z4EpfmMFAU
— All About Argentina 🛎🇦🇷 (@AlbicelesteTalk) April 15, 2022
“Messi is a leader, he is a winner, he is the one who wears the armband, the one who speaks. Leo spoke in the final, I won’t say exactly what he said but really, one would have wanted to go out and eat up the entire pitch,” the defender recalled of Messi’s speech before the Copa America final in 2021.
“On and off the court an example for all. Thank you Leo for being our leader towards this great dream we achieved. Simply the best footballer ever!!” the Manchester United defender added on Instagram after winning the World Cup with Messi.
Alexis Mac Allister
“I was so nervous, my hands were shaking,” the Brighton midfielder recalled of his first meeting with Messi in an interview with CNN.
“I’m a very shy guy, so, yeah, I was really nervous, but then you realise how humble he is.
“In that moment I was playing in Boca Juniors so we had arrived from Argentina, to, I think it was Spain for a friendly.
“We arrived and he was having dinner so yeah I went to the table and said hello with my hands – were shaking, I was sweating but it was an amazing moment.
“We wanted to win that trophy for him,” Mac Allister later told talkSPORT of Argentina’s desire to win the World Cup.
“We knew how important it was for his career and our careers.
“But we didn’t feel pressure, even though we lost the first game, we were there and it was up to us to win it.”
"I was so nervous, my hands were shaking," says Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister about the first time he met Lionel Messi.https://t.co/JneUE5tUtp #WorldCupFinal #FRAARG pic.twitter.com/tD2jCh0HNv
— CNN Football (@CNNFC) December 16, 2022
“For me, Messi is always at his best. Even when he is not he is still the best, because of what he can do. It’s magnificent,” the forward told Man City’s official website ahead of the World Cup.
“He is one of a kind.
“Obviously, having him in the team is a privilege and I’ll help him and the whole team bring joy to Argentina.
“He leads the group in a great way and this was reflected before the final [of the Copa America]. He said some amazing words.
“Being there you realise that he is a really normal person, he is a great person and a great captain.”
“We all know how much Leo loves meeting up with the national team,” Messi’s close friend said back in 2019, long before he finally delivered silverware as Argentina captain.
“The happiness that he transmits is fundamental for us because we know how much he likes the national team.
“No one wants to lose and Leo was disappointed with these defeats. But he’s a great player, he has experience, he knows that football is like this: joy and sadness.”
“Anyone who really knows about football knows there is no player like him but what I will always remember is the kind of person he was with me,” the Spurs defender told The Times.
“The moments we had with the national team, how he was with me on my first day, showing humility, drinking mate, all that makes him even greater.”