SAO PAULO (AP) — Not long ago, Argentina supporters didn’t have much affection for Lionel Messi. He was respected for all those Ballon d’Ors but considered cold-hearted in comparison to Diego Maradona.
Meanwhile, Brazil fans felt represented by their star; Neymar was the soul of the Seleção because of his joyful style and goal-scoring hunger, another link to a long chain of Brazil greats.
But the times have changed.
Argentina is in love with Messi since the latest Copa America title, the striker’s first with his national team after a long history of disappointment. Beating Brazil 1-0 in the final in July ended a 28-year title drought for the Argentines, who saw their superstar in tears after lifting the trophy — a human touch many thought he wasn’t capable of.
Messi’s performances in World Cup qualifying are cementing the fans’ adoration. He has six goals in 10 matches and Argentina is enjoying a less troubled campaign to reach Qatar than in previous qualifying runs.
Last Sunday night, during Argentina’s 3-0 win against Uruguay at Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires, the fans celebrated Messi’s goal just like they used to at Barcelona, by chanting his name and bowing in the stands.
After the match, Messi was emotional.
“These people are impressive. Every time it is more beautiful to live this, enjoy this,” he said. “The communion between team and fans is helping us, and I hope it does, too, when things go bad. Things are happening and it is easier because of their push. Nowadays, I feel calmer.”
Before the Copa America was won, Messi was criticized and held responsible for Argentina’s failures, especially the defeats in the 2014 World Cup final and in the deciders of two Copa Americas against Chile in 2015 and 2016.
His Paris Saint-Germain clubmate Neymar knows well the sound of his name being sung and the love flowing to him inside stadiums in Brazil. But not so much lately.
On Sunday, unbeaten Brazil drew with Colombia 0-0 in Barranquilla and dropped its first points in qualifying. Brazil leads South America and has nearly secured passage to Qatar, but Neymar was heavily criticized for his worst performance in ages, which included missing 17 passes. Local media suggested he be rested.
But Brazil coach Tite defended his star, saying too much was expected from his main player who has also had a slow season so far at his club.
“(Neymar) is an exceptional player because he makes exceptional plays, he does it exceptionally and not ordinarily,” Tite said. “Neymar is a special player, we know it. And he was also well marked, sometimes by two players.”
His status at home has taken hits recently.
Brazilian media accused the striker of being out of shape after Chile was beaten 1-0 on Sept. 3, which prompted him to walk around shirtless during training to display his fitness. Then after Peru was beaten 2-0 on Sept. 10, Neymar revealed his disappointment in local fans when he said, “I don’t know what else I need to do with this shirt for people to respect Neymar.”
His timing wasn’t the best when he stated his intention to break Pelé’s record of 77 official goals for Brazil, while Pelé was in hospital recovering from surgery. Criticized for that, Neymar told Brazilian actress Patricia Pillar, “Now I have to stop scoring goals,” drawing more backlash to himself.
Neymar has scored 69 times for Brazil — six times in the current qualifying campaign, like Messi — and will have another chance to add to his tally on Thursday against Uruguay in Manaus.
But the slating from fans has made Neymar reconsider his future, and attracted fresh blasts for his attitude.
“Man, I think it will be my last World Cup,” Neymar told DAZN in an interview broadcast just before the Colombia match on Sunday. An excerpt was published on the channel’s Twitter feed. “I am facing it like the last World Cup because I don’t know whether I will be able to, mentally, to endure more soccer.”
Neymar will be only 30 by the World Cup (Messi will be 35). His previous two World Cups were forgettable. In 2014, he injured his back in the quarterfinals against Colombia and missed playing in the shocking 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany. In 2018, he was sub-par in the quarterfinals elimination by Belgium.
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Mauricio Savarese is at https://twitter.com/msavarese