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NPR podcast tells the story behind Lionel Messi's journey to his final World Cup

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

When soccer's World Cup kicks off, one of the sport's biggest stars will have his last chance to win a title that has so far eluded him. Lionel Messi is often spoken of as perhaps the game's greatest player ever, but he's never lifted the famous gold trophy for his country, Argentina. It is a constant source of criticism for the man nicknamed La Pulga Atomico, the atomic flea, due to his small stature and the way he buzzes past defenders. His determination to swat aside those complaints might be all the greater when you consider that the 35-year-old's identity as an Argentino has been questioned because he left the country as a teenager to begin his ascent to stardom in Spain. That's the inspiration behind the new NPR podcast La última copa - The Last Cup - which is out now, hosted by Jasmine Garsd.

All right. So, Jasmine, what made you want to make this podcast about Messi and this journey to his final World Cup?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Well, you know, like Lionel Messi, I am from Argentina, and I'm very soccer obsessed. Soccer was a part of my life growing up. And I became just really fascinated with his relationship with his home country. And even though, you know, Lionel Messi is a huge superstar, there were some themes in his personal story that I definitely identified. There were echoes of things I had heard people in other immigrant communities talk about. It was, like, this story about someone who leaves home really young, spends a lot of their life wondering what could have happened, yearning, you know, in the nostalgia, wondering if you can ever go back and then navigating that relationship when you do go back, which is very complicated.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, now, you wanted to make this podcast about Messi in both English and Spanish. Why was that important to you?

GARSD: You know, I had been thinking a lot about Lionel Messi. And I got into an Uber, and it was a Dominican driver, and he started talking to me in Espanol, and he started telling me about how he was getting older, and people back home wanted him to come back, but his life was here in New York. And as he was telling me this, I was like, whoa, I should do this story. You know, there's, like, a common element. There's a common theme. And every time I would hear this story, it would be in Espanol. And so I just - we really wanted to do it justice by telling it in both languages.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the first three episodes are already out. So let's get a flavor from Episode 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Lionel Messi - no, no, no. No, no, no. It's got away. It's got away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The greatest achievement you can have as a footballer is winning international trophies for your country. It just is a bigger legend than winning Champions League.

GARSD: The one thing Messi has never been able to achieve is to win a World Cup for his home country, Argentina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: He's missed it. It's been saved.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: But there was a target area, and Messi misplaced it.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: Messi, even now he can't get his goal.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #5: And he doesn't pick up the prize he really wanted.

GARSD: For most of his career, when Leo Messi put on that Argentina soccer jersey, things got really bad really quick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: He missed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #7: ...Lionel Messi put his shirt over his face. He's now crouched down with his head on the field.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) He was sitting on the floor, curled up in a ball, shaking, crying inconsolably.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: Over the years, every time I would watch Messi play a big game for Argentina, I'd get really anxious, not just because I'm also from Argentina, and I hated watching our team lose; it was a personal anxiety about what I knew happened after every game. A lot of people back home would get angry at him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: His critics would say that he only cared enough to play well for the European clubs, that he'd left Argentina too young, and now he was no longer Argentine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: And the reason this rhetoric filled me with dread is that I too had to leave Argentina when I was a teenager, and it wasn't really by choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The national crisis has seen protesters taking to the streets, angry at the government's inability to end what is now three years of recession.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GARSD: As happens to many immigrants, as time passed I would feel further and further away from home, and I was haunted by questions like, can I ever go back? If I do, will I be a foreigner in my own country?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: I know some people are going to say, Jasmine, chill out. Messi is an international superstar. He's got a great life. He's very wealthy. Don't try and make me feel bad for him. But one of the reasons I love soccer is because it's about so much more than a ball on a field with 22 players. And in this podcast, we're going to talk a lot about how soccer is a way to understand the world - class, race, immigration, colonialism.

MARTÍNEZ: That's an excerpt from Episode 1 of the new NPR podcast La última copa - The Last Cup - and host Jasmine Garsd is still with us. Now, Jasmine, Messi has been voted the best player in the world a number of times. He's rewritten soccer's history books. But Diego Maradona is a god because in 1986, he pretty much single-handedly led Argentina to World Cup glory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #8: ...Maradona. They're appealing for offside. The ball came back off the foot of Steve Hodge. And Maradona gives Argentina the lead.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Jasmine, if Lionel Messi never lifts the cup over his head, where will he rank in (speaking Spanish) - in the hearts of your countrymen?

GARSD: (Laughter) I think he's come around to being very beloved, and people have, like, a certain kind of, like, tenderness for him because they understand what he went through. I think the Diego Maradona represents something completely different to Argentina. I mean, he's this kid from the slums who, like, was really on the outskirts of society in terms of class and race, and he overcame all kinds of challenges to become this hero. But I do think that, you know, Leo Messi has come around and that people have finally started to embrace him. Yeah?

MARTÍNEZ: But if he never wins a cup, will he be as beloved?

GARSD: Don't say that, A. Don't invoke it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTÍNEZ: I know. I know. We'll see. His last chance is coming up. Jasmine Garsd is the host La última copa - The Last Cup - out now wherever you get your podcasts. Jasmine, thanks a lot.

GARSD: Thank you so much. This was fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.