Argentina’s Messi given OK to play in Seattle

Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi kicks the ball during practice, Monday in Tukwila. Argentina is scheduled to face Bolivia on Tuesday in a Copa America Centenario soccer match in Seattle.
Argentina midfielder Lionel Messi kicks the ball during practice, Monday in Tukwila. Argentina is scheduled to face Bolivia on Tuesday in a Copa America Centenario soccer match in Seattle. The Associated Press

When it comes to Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, there are generally only two questions: Is he the best soccer player in the world? Is he the best player of all time?

Last week, Seattle Sounders forward and Fox analyst Herculez Gomez raised a vastly different question: Is the Argentina national team better without him?

“He’s not the best player all-time in his own country,” Gomez said. “They’re very demanding people. They believe that you need to win and win everything. Until he wins that World Cup he’s going to have that cloud hanging over his head. But he’s a very good player. Argentina’s a very good team. I feel they’re a better team without him.

“The way they press defensively, you can’t do it if Messi’s on the field. They’re very, very tough to play against in transition, and I think they showed it. Stupid as this sounds, he might be a disruption to that.”

It probably sounded even stupider Friday when Messi returned from a back injury in the second half against Panama and recorded a hat trick in his first 19 minutes on the pitch.

Messi also assisted a goal, giving him a hand in four of the scores in Argentina’s 5-0 win, which punched its ticket to the Copa American Centenario quarterfinals — almost certainly as the group winner — regardless of their result Tuesday night against Bolivia at CenturyLink Field. The match also won’t alter the fate of Bolivia, which is eliminated regardless of result.

On Monday, Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said Messi will play, although he gave no indication if it would be in a starting role or how many minutes he might play.

However, that means Northwest fans can expect a look at a player who figures in almost every conversation about the best players now and of all time.

“His control in tight spaces, his imagination, his balance, his explosion is just something that can’t be taught,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s something that you have or you don’t have. So for me, seeing him up close … he’s just a cut above.

“But as with all (great) players, at the end of the day what made Pele, Pele is three World Cups. At the end of the day what made (Diego) Maradona, Maradona was the World Cup. What made (Franz) Beckenbauer, Beckenbauer is the World Cup. ... Messi, that’s the thing you’re looking for. Yeah, with his club team he’s won everything. Now, can he finally lead Argentina to the promised land?”

Messi, 28, has eight La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League titles with Spanish club Barcelona. He holds the La Liga record of 50 goals in a season. He has been FIFA’s world player of the year five times.

His notable blank spot is the lack of a World Cup — which fellow Argentine Maradona has.

Maradona also has rubbed salt in that wound by questioning Messi’s leadership.

International media asked similar questions Sunday when Argentina held an introductory press conference at its hotel in Bellevue. And in that half-hour session, teammates Nicolas Gaitan and Marcos Rojo stood up for him.

“Leo is a leader,” Rojo said, translated from Spanish. “Everyone knows. He’s always a person that’s always with the team. He’s one more with the team. He’s a phenomenon inside and outside of the field.”

That was echoed — expanded upon — by Gaitan, who thought he was starting against Panama in part due to Messi’s absence, but then remained one with Messi subbed on.

“There’s not a lot of players that just by seeing them you respect them, but Messi is one of them,” he said, also translated from Spanish. “In that sense I’m lucky to share the locker room with him. When the substitution was going to happen I thought it was me that was going to leave the field. I was surprised it wasn’t me, and I got the opportunity to play a little bit with him on the field.”