LIONEL MESSI IS NOT HAPPY. Why is not clear at first, because, as all Spain knows on this cool, sparkling November day, the 22-year-old Argentine soccer god should be ecstatic. Last night his club team, Barcelona, beat archrival Real Madrid before a home crowd of 90,000, and tomorrow looks to be even better: Word has leaked that Messi will be awarded the Golden Ball as 2009 European Footballer of the Year. His annual income, including endorsements, is $46 million. His team is dominating La Liga, the Spanish first division. His game is rounding into breathtaking form.
Still, look at him: hunched in a chair like a kid hauled into the principal's office, pausing after each question to glance at his manager-brother, Rodrigo, as if to say, Can you get me out of here? Now? The clock is ticking: This is shaping up to be the worst Q and A in history.
Adidas had offered up its soccer show pony for a 30-minute chat, but once it became clear that the discussion would touch on the Argentine national team and its tempestuous coach, Diego Maradona, a coolness set in. The 30 minutes were abruptly slashed to 15, and Messi spent the first 5½ giving clipped and preemptively bland replies. Now Maradona's name pops up, tucked into the idea that it must be both tiresome and flattering to be compared with perhaps the greatest player in history. Messi's face hardens: Here's the ball he's been waiting to boot out-of-bounds.
"What's tiresome," he says in Spanish, "is always being asked the same question."
The words hang in the air a few seconds; then Messi is asked how it has been to play for the man. "I'm sorry," the Adidas marketing man says, "we have to leave the Maradona questions aside. He's trying to change to another topic."
So Messi doesn't want to talk about Maradona—his father's idol, the playing genius he eerily resembles, the combustible force who controls Messi's hope of winning the 2010 World Cup—at all? "No," the sneaker man says. "Try to understand that he now is answering all these questions about Maradona, Maradona, Maradona. He's tired of replying always about Maradona."
Such news hardly comes as a shock. Their marriage has felt strained since September 2008, a month before Maradona took over, when he clucked, "Sometimes Messi plays for himself; he feels so superior that he forgets his teammates." The Albiceleste's campaign to qualify for the World Cup was a dispiriting slog marked by ever-changing lineups, bewildered stars and debacles like a 6--1 loss in Bolivia. Messi, who scored four goals in 67 minutes against Arsenal on April 6, mustered only one in 10 qualifiers under Maradona. Last October, after Argentina squeaked by Uruguay to make the field, Maradona held a press conference and told his critics to "suck it and keep sucking," for which he received a two-month ban by FIFA. Relief, elation, dread? By day's end, lovers of Argentine football had no idea what to feel.
No one looked more drained than Messi. Too often during qualifying he had appeared listless and had flown back to Barcelona in a funk. "Very down—you could see it," says one Barça staffer. "[Argentina] was playing defensively, and he was alone up front. You had to wonder, Is Maradona sabotaging him?"
But Maradona wasn't the only one being ripped. Messi too was blamed for Argentina's woeful play, and he found himself living a paradox: Even as people around the world likened his work in Barcelona to that of magicians such as Pelé and Johan Cruyff, back home Messi heard only a chorus of skepticism. Fans and the media questioned not only his ability to produce under the ultimate spotlight but also his allegiance, his very Argentineness. As good as Diego? Win a World Cup like he did in 1986—then we'll compare.
"More than 100 players were called up for the national team, and only one was to blame?" says Messi's father, Jorge. "It's unfair. Lio has never gotten used to the situation here in Argentina. It's really tough for him to be in Barcelona, where he's really loved, and then come here and hear all that criticism."