Former Argentina youth coach Hugo Tocalli says he ‘never would have forgiven himself’ if Lionel Messi opted to play for Spain.
The 74-year-old handed Messi his international debut at youth level for Argentina during his stint managing the U20s, where the PSG superstar turned out 16 times before progressing to the senior ranks.
Since that transition to the Argentina first team, Messi has earned 162 caps, scoring 86 goals, which places him fourth in the all-time international scoring charts, recently surpassing Ferenc Puskas and moving just three below Mokhtar Dahari.
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The Albiceleste captain is both his nation’s top scorer and top appearance-maker since turning out for the first time in 2005, guiding the South Americans to Copa America glory last summer, a World Cup final in 2014 and a Gold Medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
He will compete in his fifth World Cup later this year when the quadrennial showpiece gets underway in November, but things could have been different if Tocalli hadn’t called up the diminutive genius all those years ago, as he has now revealed.
Speaking on Radio Villa Trinidad (via TNT Sports), Hugo Tocalli said: “Many times I think about it and I said it from the first moment we brought him: it’s a good thing we called him up, because if he was going to play for Spain, I would have had to leave Argentina and go live somewhere else.
“With Jose (Pekerman), we would not have forgiven ourselves for that.”
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Messi was eligible to play for Spain through his Catalan great grandfather, who was born in Balaguer. Following Messi’s move to Barcelona from Newell’s Old Boys in 2000, the club’s then director of football, Carles Rexach, urged the Royal Spanish Football Federation to convince him to play for the nation.
It was a tug-of-war between two nations for Messi’s allegiance, with Argentina even arranging two U20s friendlies just to ensure he turned out for them. Ultimately, Messi has since revealed that, despite being “informally” asked to play for Spain, his heart was always with Argentina.
“When I was a kid I expected to get a call from the AFA [Argentinian Football Association],” Messi wrote in his book, Messi, The Patriot. “I was asked informally if I wanted to play for Spain, but I always said that I wanted to play for my national team because I love Argentina and these are the only colours I want to wear.
“I was always an avid fan of the national team. I watched the games on television because I could never go to the grounds and watch them as a fan.”