Will Lionel Messi win a World Cup, and surpass Diego Maradona? : La última copa/The Last Cup Lionel Messi finally gets a chance to put on Argentina's national jersey, but something is off. His time abroad has fundamentally changed the way he plays. Things get even more complicated when the Argentine soccer legend, Diego Maradona, becomes coach of Messi's 2010 World Cup team. With Messi under increasing scrutiny, the hometown crowd begins to question if he can ever get out from under Maradona's shadow.

Lionel Messi has been living in a soccer god's shadow. Will he finally surpass him?

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JASMINE GARSD, HOST:

THE LAST CUP is available in English and in Spanish. This is the English version. (Speaking Spanish). A warning before we start this episode - today's story contains explicit language.

The first signs of trouble appeared very early on, almost as soon as Lionel Messi began playing with Argentina on the under-20 national squad.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He was 16.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Remember in the last episode I told you about that friendly match between Argentina and Paraguay? OK, so that was Messi's introduction into the high-stakes world of Argentine international soccer.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He scored a fantastic goal. He made a big splash. But something was off.

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GARSD: Gerardo Salorio, aka el Profe, the Professor, was Messi's trainer in that under-20 national Argentina team. He was there at that game when Messi scored his first goal.

GERARDO SALORIO: (Through interpreter) He played like he played in Spain. When he lost the ball, he'd act like it wasn't a big deal.

GARSD: After three years of training abroad, Salorio says, yes, he played like an extraterrestrial. He was just amazing. But something was missing - the edge, the passion, the punk rock which makes Latin American soccer so unique.

SALORIO: (Through interpreter) I told him, here, if you don't run, they're going to kill you. Here we play with a knife under our poncho. If you don't run and score, people here will spit on you. In Spain, you may be a kid. Here, they will kill you.

GARSD: Messi had been far away for too long in Barcelona, where he'd been taught to play more like a European. And Messi learned his lessons well. Welcome to THE LAST CUP, co-produced by NPR and Futuro Studios. I'm Jasmine Garsd. To become the Leo the world loves, Messi had to leave a part of himself behind. And isn't that what every person who leaves home has to do - learn to be someone else? Messi did such a good job that years later, when he tried to go back home to Argentina, many fans wouldn't let him forget the way that homegrown legends are supposed to play in Latin America.

To understand Messi's style, you have to understand where he comes from.

FELIPE CARDENAS: I think Latin American football - a lot of it is off-script.

GARSD: Felipe Cardenas writes about soccer for The Athletic.

CARDENAS: It's players that figure out moments of the game and use their skill and their creativity and what we call picardia - you know, that bravery and that arrogance that you have on the ball. That's how you can win games. But in South America, nothing is given to you - nothing.

GARSD: In Argentina, most kids learn to play this rougher, more individualistic style of soccer on neighborhood dirt fields known as potreros. That literally means a horse field.

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GARSD: Kids might use bricks or bottles or whatever they can find to mark goalposts. There are usually no referees. The players run over uneven terrain through clouds of dust.

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GARSD: El potrero has always been a really important place in Argentina's mythology, the dirt womb from which our soccer gods are born. Simon Kuper is a sportswriter and columnist with the Financial Times.

SIMON KUPER: In Argentina, there's a tradition of the pibe, the boy, the kid who just gets the ball, and he dribbles on this uneven field, and he goes past five people and scores. And he does it by himself.

GARSD: On those fields in Argentina, when you play, you play to win by any means necessary.

GUILLEM BALAGUE: Trickiness, being clever, streetwise.

GARSD: Guillem Balague wrote Messi's authorized biography. He says in Argentina, up until recently, the potrero was the school of soccer, and it doubled as the school of life.

BALAGUE: You need to survive. And sometimes survival doesn't go through the usual channels. You have to - you know, you have to do things that perhaps in normal circumstances you wouldn't do. And potrero shows you that.

GARSD: And Simon Kuper says that Messi, he learned to beat defensive players...

KUPER: He can go through four players and score.

GARSD: ...Always be on the attack...

KUPER: I can do it myself.

GARSD: ...And focus on one thing, make that goal.

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KUPER: And he thinks, I just want to be el pibe. Just give me the ball. Shut up. I'll sort it out.

GARSD: And when Messi leaves Argentina in 2001 at age 13 to play soccer at Barca Football Club, he arrives in a completely different place, one of the most elite soccer schools in the world. He signs on to join La Masia. That's Barca's famous academy...

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GARSD: ...Worlds away from the potreros of Rosario. Alexis Nunes covers LaLiga, Spain's top football league, for ESPN.

ALEXIS NUNES: La Masia is the first one that everybody thinks of when you think of scouting players from a young age and then turning them into the superstars that we know today.

GARSD: A lot of soccer teams around the world have youth academies in which they train kids to hopefully, one day, become pros. Although, few will actually make it. La Masia is known for training soccer players and gentlemen.

KUPER: I mean, it's a very kind of, let's say, bourgeois, upper-middle-class institution in terms of the people who run it.

GARSD: Simon Kuper has written extensively about La Masia, most recently in his book "The Barcelona Complex." And the way he describes it, it sounds more like the X-Men's academy than a football club.

KUPER: The directors is the kind of traditional business class of Barcelona. And they have these kind of middle-class Catholic values. And they're kind of taught to behave well. And they're encouraged to spend a lot of time studying.

GARSD: Kuper writes that La Masia runs such a tight, disciplined ship that the children are discouraged from putting too much milk on their cereal. It's seen as excessive. And this bourgeois attitude of refinement and control at La Masia, it shows up on the soccer field, too. Barca encourages competition, but also team spirit, passing the ball. It's a style that prizes order and sportsmanship. And when Messi first arrives...

KUPER: First of all, the knives were taken away. So you have to find a way to win without knives.

GARSD: Messi was being asked to leave the potrero behind. And that was not easy.

KUPER: He comes as the perfect pibe. And Barca say, OK, that's great, but it's not enough. What you have to learn here is you have to learn to pass. And Messi, for a lot of his teenage years, is saying, I don't want to pass. I can do it myself. And he's right.

GARSD: Kuper says that even years after Messi arrived at La Masia...

KUPER: They were always fighting with him. You have to pass. You have to think collectively. Give us the ball. We'll give it back to you. But you have to give it to us. You can't do it alone.

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GARSD: That kind of criticism will follow him for years. There's even one infamous dust-up with his teammate, veteran midfielder Rafa Marquez from Mexico. He recently went on the YouTube show El Escorpion Dorado and recalled this one training session.

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RAFA MARQUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

ALEX MONTIEL: (Non-English language spoken).

GARSD: "We were on the same team, dude," Rafa Marquez said.

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MARQUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

GARSD: "And, you know, he grabs the ball. He goes around one player, then another and another."

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MARQUEZ: Like he told him not to.

GARSD: "Messi's got the ball, but he won't shoot. He won't score. Pass the F-ing ball. So we started arguing," Marquez says, "and that's when I had to shut him up."

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MARQUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

MONTIEL: (Non-English language spoken).

GARSD: If Latin American soccer is jazz, creativity and improvisation, in Europe, it's orchestral - synchronicity and technique. Messi was learning to be part of the symphony.

KUPER: What he learned was to play the great collective football that Barcelona taught in La Masia.

GARSD: That's lovely. But when he gets back to play with the Argentine national squad in 2004, Argentine coaches like Profe Salodeo (ph), yeah, that's not going to fly around here.

PROFE SALODEO: (Through interpreter) At first, he didn't work out as well as we'd hoped. He didn't have time to transition from European soccer to Argentine soccer. It's a shift.

GARSD: Salodeo noticed this the moment Messi debuted with the national team jersey at the legendary Argentinos Juniors Stadium in Buenos Aires, where the style that Salodeo was craving was perfected.

SALODEO: (Through interpreter) What a coincidence. Maradona, the best player in the world, debuted at the Argentinos Juniors stadium when the stands were still made of wood. And Leo Messi debuted when they were rebuilding that stadium.

GARSD: After the break, I'm going to take you to that stadium where God himself debuted.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

GARSD: That's coming up on THE LAST CUP.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARSD: I'm at the stadium of Argentinos Juniors, a team also known as The Bug. It's quite the landmark. In some ways, this is where modern Argentine soccer history begins.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARSD: The bleachers stand at an almost 45-degree angle in a stadium that is packed elbow to neck with people singing and jumping up and down in unison to the sound of the drum squad.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARSD: And as the game is about to start, like, a dozen red smoke grenades go off in the bleachers and the entire air turns a thick blood color.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARSD: When the fog clears, there he is in the middle of the field. It's the giant inflatable head of Maradona, Diego Maradona.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARSD: It's more like a bust, actually, made of the same material as a bouncy castle. He's making a screaming goal face. And it makes perfect sense that Maradona would loom especially large here. Argentinos Juniors was, after all, the first team he played for. One by one, the players pop out of his chest cavity onto the field, and now the crowd really goes nuts.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Argentinos, Argentinos, Argentinos, Argentinos, Argentinos.

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BALAGUE: Maradona is a reference to everyone and especially to a kid that wants to get into football.

GARSD: Guillem Balague is also the author of a biography on Maradona.

BALAGUE: He wants to win as much as him. He wants to be as decisive as him. He wants to exploit his talent as much as Maradona did.

GARSD: Maradona in time became a fan of Messi's. He also became his critic. But above all, he's the guy Messi got compared to for most of his career with the Argentina team. And for the longest time, it felt like Messi could never measure up.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Maradona was the original Pibe. First, he got barrio famous. He was big in his own neighborhood. And by the early '80s, he's the star of Argentina's biggest pro team, Boca Juniors.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He tries his luck in Europe, and then he comes back ready to win the biggest prize of all.

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GARSD: In 1986, he was called up to play for Argentina in one of the most memorable tournaments in the history of the World Cup.

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GARSD: It was hosted by Mexico, which led to one of the tournament's catchiest theme songs.

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GARSD: The most iconic moment of that 1986 World Cup was not the final in which Argentina beat West Germany, becoming a world champion. It was in the quarterfinals against England.

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GARSD: You have to understand, Argentina desperately needed something to celebrate. We had recently put an end to a brutal military junta, a dictatorship. The country had also lost a disastrous war against England four years earlier over the islands in the South Atlantic that Argentines know as las Malvinas, which the military had attempted to reclaim. So when Maradona struts down to the field under the British players' gaze, it's hard not to get chills.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: There they are. Diego Maradona.

GARSD: His short, muscular legs, his chest puffed up, his hair a mass of black curls. Half Sid Vicious, half (speaking Spanish). He's like a rooster in a cockfight, the champion of the (speaking Spanish).

Once the game starts, Maradona doesn't run - he floats.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: And Diego Maradona came immediately to him.

GARSD: Throughout the game, he keeps dribbling past every English player.

Writer Felipe Cardenas (ph) says...

CARDENAS: If you watch interviews from the team that won the 1986 World Cup from Argentina, they - a lot of those former players, just knowing that they had Diego Maradona was like winning half of the game. It's like we had 50% of the game already won before we even stepped on the pitch.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Maradona. Four England players between...

GARSD: Maradona is playing the tricks he learnt in El Potrero, performing the schemes he's been scheming since he was a boy. He's clever. He's cunning. You blink and you miss him.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Maradona just walked away from huddle.

GARSD: Some listeners might want to remind me at this point that the first goal he makes against England was with his hand.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: The England players protesting to the referee.

GARSD: Don't bother. I know. I've seen it a thousand times. The way Maradona bumps it into the goal with his raised fist right next to his head, the way he celebrates in front of the British squad, as if saying, what? It makes you sad when someone steals from you?

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Or was it a use of the hand that England are complaining about?

GARSD: That first goal went on to be called the Hand of God.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Has Burruchaga to his left...

GARSD: The one he made next is so spectacular...

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: He won't need any of them. Oh, you have to say that's magnificent.

GARSD: ...It's known as the Goal of the Century.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: There is no debate about that goal.

GARSD: After that, Maradona had certainly reached godlike status in Argentina.

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GARSD: Like so many people whose lives become myth, Maradona was actually complex and, at times, problematic. His career was marked by drug abuse. There have been allegations of abuse of women, which prior to his death in 2020, he denied. And today, even after his death, his presence looms over Argentina, in large part because of where he came from, how unlikely his success was, his place in Argentine society before he rose to fame.

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GARSD: Messi and Maradona represent two different experiences of Argentina. Messi has always been seen as a shy prodigy from the Argentine version of the Midwest. Like Messi, Maradona had to get injections as a kid. But Maradona, who grew up in abject poverty in the slums outside Buenos Aires, he had to be injected with supplements because his body was underdeveloped. Maradona succeeded even though he was poor and he was brown in a country that is still obsessed with being European.

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DIEGO MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: In this interview from 1993 on Antena 3 in Spain, a reporter asks if Maradona has Indigenous ancestry.

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MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: And Maradona says, yeah, I do have Indigenous ancestry, the Guarani people.

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MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Maradona looks a little perplexed by the question. In Argentina to this day, this topic - race - is somewhat taboo.

ERIKA EDWARDS: Argentina wants to be and projects itself as a white country.

GARSD: Erika Edwards teaches about race in Argentina at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is the author of "Hiding In Plain Sight: Black Women, The Law, And The Making Of A White Argentine Republic."

EDWARDS: But in reality, it isn't, and I don't think it ever has been.

GARSD: She says one of the reasons why Maradona is considered a god in Argentina is that...

EDWARDS: Maradona made it. And, you know, he wasn't denying where he came from 'cause he couldn't.

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GARSD: Alejandro Mamani is a lawyer with the anti-racism activist group Identidad Marron. He says...

ALEJANDRO MAMANI: (Through interpreter) Diego is the dream. And there is a racial component there. A part of the population sees itself reflected in him.

GARSD: Messi, meanwhile...

MAMANI: (Through interpreter) Messi grew up in conditions that were ripe for him to succeed.

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GARSD: This white kid, educated at La Masia, where he seemed to have lived a comfortable and plush life in Europe, at least on the surface, that was not something many Argentines could relate to. These two players, the old and the young, the legend from the barrio and the promising young star of La Masia Academy, soon their paths would cross.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: It didn't turn out so great.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: That's coming up after the break.

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GARSD: You know when you've been practicing something really hard for a while and then it suddenly starts to click? Well, that's what happens around 2007 for Messi in a big way. He's playing this explosive combo of European-style soccer with a Latin American flair.

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GARSD: Kay Murray covers international soccer for ESPN. Back then, she was just starting her career as a broadcaster.

KAY MURRAY: You know, you always hear about the next big thing.

GARSD: Around this time is when a lot of people start to see it. Messi is such a good player, he could one day be world champion. Murray says a friend told her...

MURRAY: Have you seen this kid at Barcelona, Lionel Messi? And he said, well, he's going to be the next big thing, you know.

GARSD: Murray still remembers that year's big game - Barca against Real Madrid, El Clasico. This is one of the biggest rivalries in sports.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: It's a great chance for Messi. It's 1-1.

GARSD: This is considered by many to be Messi's coming-out game.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Ronaldinho stopped by Casillas, blasted in by Messi.

MURRAY: Real Madrid scored three goals in this game. Barcelona replied to every one of those through 19-year-old Lionel Messi.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Time for an equalizer for Barcelona. That's what Lionel Messi has in mind. Messi takes everybody on. Messi has got it.

MURRAY: Three-three this game finished. Lionel Messi was the name that everybody was talking about after that.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: This is the game that is going to be remembered as the Lionel Messi match - 19 years of age, and he gets a hat trick.

MURRAY: I think then we knew Messi was going to be the best player in the world.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: They compared him to Diego Maradona, as they do many Argentinians when they come over here. But he is living up to that billing.

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MURRAY: His feet and the ball are meant to be together - well, his foot, his left foot. It's like Velcro the way that he can just keep that ball stuck to his foot and then do what he does.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Lionel Messi goes down in the annals of greatness.

GARSD: Messi is scoring the big goals, but he's also creating opportunities for others. He's a scorer, but he's also passing and racking up game-winning assists. He's the ultimate team player.

MURRAY: It's just the way that everything opens out in front of him. I don't know. I feel like there's nothing this player couldn't do.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Remember the name Lionel Messi. You're going to hear an awful lot of it over the next 10 years. He has been the star of the show.

GARSD: Simon Kuper says it's like he took the best of pibe-style Argentine soccer and what he learnt at La Masia and...

KUPER: He became the best individual player in the world and also the best collective player in the world. And that had never been seen before.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: And here's the official welcome. It's Africa's first World Cup.

GARSD: The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was his first big chance to become as huge as Maradona. It's true that he'd played in the previous Cup, but he spent a lot of time waiting on the bench. South Africa was going to be different. Messi was in a great place. And to top it all off, Maradona was returning to the national team as a head coach.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: And the referee will blow the final whistle to signal the warning to the rest of the World Cup coaches that Argentina have come here to win the World Cup for Diego Maradona.

GARSD: It was supposed to be like a passing of the torch, but it was often more like a comedy show to watch the very mild-mannered Messi under the guidance of the bombastic Maradona dressed in a suit and tie, constantly looking like he was going to have an aneurysm, pulling his hair out, furiously hoarse from so much screaming.

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MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: So here they are in the locker room before the quarterfinal game against Germany.

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MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Maradona is yelling, "the Germans - they said what they said, but we'll talk louder on the field. Let's go eat these assholes alive." Throughout the tirade, Messi is just standing there, deadpan, quietly looking down at the floor. He looked nervous, maybe because Argentina had played chaotically throughout that World Cup. There were a lot of stars on the team, but the biggest one, Messi, often seemed to be alone out on the field.

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GARSD: Right before the game, Argentina's fitness coach, Fernando Signorini, managed to intercept Messi.

FERNANDO SIGNORINI: (Through interpreter) I remember while he was warming up before the match, the stadium was deafening. There was so much cheering it was impossible to hear what you are saying, even you're right there next to each other.

GARSD: Signorini is a slight, gentle man. He slipped in a piece of advice for Messi.

SIGNORINI: (Through interpreter) I could see him walking back and forth on the field looking so stressed. And at some point, I walked over to him and said, we expect you to do your best and give what you can. But you have to do it with a smile because if you're out there smiling, we know you're enjoying the game. And if you're enjoying the game, we still have some hope to win.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Again, Messi, Messi - even now, he can't get his goal.

GARSD: Argentina lost out of the World Cup that day, 4-0 against Germany.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: And Germany are into the semifinals of the World Cup, and Maradona's Argentina are out. What a result.

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GARSD: After the game, Germany was praised for its highly structured, precise style of play, the way the entire squad moved up and down the field in perfect harmony. No team member was ever really alone. And Argentina looked disjointed.

CARDENAS: They're just trying to figure out, how do I get the ball to Lionel Messi?

GARSD: Here's Felipe Cardenas from The Athletic.

CARDENAS: The tactics were very stagnant. I think the style of play of Argentina was referred to as it was improvised.

GARSD: It just felt like a bunch of individual players who didn't know each other but knew to just pass it to Messi. He's the best in the world. He'll fix this. He'll do what Maradona would have done - the hand of God, the goal of the century, something. Make your potrero magic happen. But that potrero magic is exactly what Spain had asked him to tone down for so many years. After the game, Signorini found Messi in the locker room in a fetal position.

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SIGNORINI: (Through interpreter) I remember that moment vividly. He was sitting on the floor, curled up in a ball, shaking. He was crying unconsolably (ph). He made me think, if this is what soccer leads to, if this is what it's for, then it's worth very little, no?

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GARSD: And people back home, meanwhile, they were starting to get really, really pissed. In an interview many years later, God himself would question Messi. Here's Maradona talking on Fox Sports.

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MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "He just doesn't have it in him, brother," says Maradona. "He's great, but he doesn't have that leadership in him."

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MARADONA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "There's no point in trying to turn a man who gets so nervous he has to go to the bathroom 20 times before a game into a boss." It was harsh, but it's what a lot of people were thinking in Argentina after that World Cup. Messi might be a big deal in Europe, but in Argentina, he was just a kid who left, like a lot of kids in the early-aughts. He had changed too much.

And what many Argentines had come to realize is that a player like young Maradona, the one before all the scandals, back when he was a sweet kid, Italian and Guarani, who rose out of poverty and went on to score impossible goals against the English, that kind of player could only happen once in our lifetimes. If miracles happened all the time, they wouldn't be miracles.

This other kid, Messi, the one who left our collapsing country and returned with a Made in Spain seal, he too was fantastic. But we had no idea what to do with him.

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GARSD: Coming up on the next episode of THE LAST CUP.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Hating on Messi reaches a fever pitch in Argentina.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There was a statue in Argentina that was erected in honor of Lionel Messi. That statue was vandalized over the years when he wasn't winning games. It's an incredible turn of events for a player that all he ever wanted was to be loved and successful for his national team.

GARSD: That's next time on THE LAST CUP.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORINA LAWRENCE'S "LA DESCARRIA FT. MISS BOLIVIA (UJI REMIX)")

GARSD: THE LAST CUP is a co-production of NPR and Futuro Studios. This episode was produced by Andrew Mambo, Julieta Martinelli and Lee Hale with support from Paz S. Saravia (ph). Our editor is Luis Trelles. Our bilingual team of producers includes Fernanda Echavarri, Marlon Bishop, Schuyler Swenson, Juan Diego Ramirez, Nic M. Neves. And our intern for this series was Cameron Howell. Voiceover actors for this episode were Brian Jeffords, Julian Mesri (ph) and Reynaldo Leanos. Our mix engineer for this episode was Andie Huether. Fact checking by Sarah Knight. Mary Glendinning is the deputy chief of NPR's Research, Archives and Data Strategy. Music provided courtesy of ZZK Records. Our production coordinator was Margaret Price. Katie Simon is the supervising editor for Embedded. Lauren González is the senior manager of the content development team. Our executive producers are Yolanda Sangweni for NPR and Marlon Bishop for Futuro Studios. Anya Grundmann is senior vice president for programming and audience development.

We love getting feedback from listeners. You can send us a message at thelastcut@npr.org. I'm Jasmine Garsd. We'll be back next week with more from THE LAST CUP.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORINA LAWRENCE'S "LA DESCARRIA FT. MISS BOLIVIA (UJI REMIX)")

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