There is a joke Pakistan cricket journalists like to rib Indians with. Why, it goes, does the Indian jersey have three stars over the BCCI logo? For the three World Cups, the country has won, is the expected reply. No, they will then say. It is for the three matches Sachin Tendulkar has won you.
The implications are obvious. Sachin never won India the matches that mattered. Despite his big statistics, and his century of centuries, when push came to shove, Sachin was in the pavillion. The Pakistani implications go further. They argue that Sachin was an individual player in a team sport. He scored centuries for himself and put himself over the team’s needs. Not like Miandad, they will argue.
At first glance, this probably seems true. Sachin’s first mainstream consciousness moment, the Sharjah Cup hammering of Australia holds testament to the fact that Sachin didn’t finish games, and bring India home. His failure in the 2003 World Cup final—after a tournament where he scored the most runs by anyone ever—is another one to tick on the list. The statistics themselves, though, tell a different story. And there are enough people who have expounded on this, in greater detail.
The key fact to gather here is this: For many Sachin critics, it seemed that Sachin never turned up on the big stage, and despite all his brilliance was rarely able to turn games for his side on his own.
If you haven’t already figured out the link we’re trying to make, then let it be spelt out. This is a charge commonly also laid out against Lionel Messi when he turns out for Argentina. When he turns out for Argentina, it has often been accused, he doesn’t have as much passion as he does for Barcelona. He doesn’t sing the national anthem. And most of all, when he turns out for Argentina, he doesn’t influence the game and goes missing, sometimes too often. Again, the statistics will tell a different story.
Argentina and India are not the same. And even in terms of their own fan legacies, Messi and Sachin couldn’t be more vastly different. It is difficult to think of any common Indian cricket fan during Sachin’s heyday who would loudly criticise him and accuse him of ‘being selfish’.
This is a pivotal week in the World Cup, and, so, we have its first crisis. And caught in the churn are Argentina, whose cup winning hopes are all but extinguished, and their chances of qualifying for the next round—despite remaining mathematically possible—is out of their own hands. A loss to Croatia, a brutal humbling by a cohesive team performance from them, has left Argentina jarred.
In his post-match press conference, coach Jorge Sampaoli chose to seek the blame, and also asked for forgiveness from the fans for their awful display. In the eye of the storm was also Messi, who managed a mere 49 touches in the game, and was a peripheral figure at most times. Sampaoli pointedly defended his superstar. “I think," the Argentina coach said, "because of the reality of the Argentine squad, it sort of clouds Leo's brilliance.”
Again, the Sachin parallels are inevitable. For a majority of his career, Sachin played in a mediocre team. Without any disrespect to his peers through the ’90s, they were, quite simply, not up to his standard. There have been entire tournaments, where he has been the only man to hit triple figures, and matches where everyone else has barely hit two. India have obviously lost.
Chanced with a team that was led by example and strength of will (shoutout to Dada), in 2003, Sachin grabbed the reins and expertly steered them to the final. In the final, the Australians had a plan, put it in action, and Sachin was out. Everyone else was already on holiday.
In 2014, Messi too chanced upon a team that had mettle. Steel in their midfield, old hands steady on the rudder, and a defensively robust backline. Players like Javier Mascherano (in his prime), Lucas Biglia and Maxi Rodriguez controlled the middle of the park. Ezequiel Garay, Pablo Zabaleta and Martin Demichelis were’t standout defenders but as a unit were enough to shut out the Netherlands and Belgium (teams which had free-scored their way to the knockouts). Messi led with freedom. He led with verve. He scored in every group game, and set up goals in the knockouts.
In the final, Germany knew the plan. Their steely eyed midfield outplayed Argentina’s. And Messi, denied of the ball, flustered. The one moment when he did manage to create magic, Gonzalo Higuain fluffed his lines.
This World Cup has been different. Argentina are in complete disarray. There is no cohesion in their midfield and their defence is led by Nicolas Otamendi, a man who was considered the liability in Manchester City’s record breaking side this season. The coach with a specific plan is untrusted, and lacks influence on the side. Remember India 2007?
Against Croatia yesterday, Messi’s invisibility cloak was further strengthened by his manager’s sudden desire to isolate him upfront in a two man forward line. His 49 touches speak a lot about him, but it also speaks of the lack of balance in this side. Player with lesser technical ability hogged more of the ball for Argentina yesterday. If against Iceland, his teammates were guilty of searching for Messi too often, then against Croatia they were guilty of not looking for him at all. Croatia had them figured out. They were a one-trick pony, and that one trick was isolated.
In all probability, this was always going to be Messi’s last real chance at World Cup glory. He may still be around in Qatar 2022, but he will be 35 that June, and will definitely not be the same player. If he does win it there, it won’t be as the world’s greatest player putting a final stamp on his legacy, but more as a veteran who finally achieves redemption, completing the one job left to be done.
Much like Sachin in 2011, it is an appealing narrative to want, but perhaps not the one Argentina ever truly wanted. They should learn from India, though, and wish it comes true.