As Lionel Messi is Argentina’s hottest cultural export — second only, perhaps, to the Pope — it comes as no surprise that politicians from Xi Jinping to Barack Obama have dropped references to the international soccer star when meeting with Argentine president Mauricio Macri during his first year in office.
On Saturday during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, Xi had his first one-on-one meeting with the Argentine president. It was a head-to-head in which Jinping shared one of the global superpower’s goals with Mauricio — that China would have its own Lionel within a few decades. Messi, it seems, has become an inspiration for aspiring soccer stars in the Asian economic powerhouse.
“Within the next 20 years, we want a Chinese Lionel Messi or a Maradona, and for that we need your help.”
According to Argentine newspaper La Nación, Macri responded to Xi’s request for their very own Lionel with a chuckle. After all, building one of the strongest pools of soccer talent in the world, much less snagging a crown jewel like Messi, is a Herculean task. As the Latin American country aggressively seeks foreign investment, Mauricio doesn’t want to be making promises to Jinping that he can’t deliver.
“For that, you’ve got a long way to go, but we can help if you want.”
Ahora: reunión bilateral con el presidente de la República Popular China, Xi Jinping pic.twitter.com/oIEXq9UFdE
— Mauricio Macri (@mauriciomacri) September 3, 2016
As noted before, nods to Lionel often serve as a tension-breaking joke when world leaders meet with Macri, and, no doubt, there were laughs when Xi raised the Argentine icon’s name. For Jinping, however, the task of creating the Chinese Messi is an absolutely serious one, and it’s one he’s actively recruiting Argentina to help make a reality.
In a number of ways, China is pushing for the aid of Argentina in its own domestic soccer program. Xi made clear that the country hopes to one day take the World Cup, an honor Mauricio’s home country narrowly missed out on in 2014 despite the fact that Lionel was on the roster.
— SamuelKadest (@Samuelkadest) September 3, 2016
While Messi himself might not be showing up to teach lessons anytime soon, Macri and Jinping did arrive at an agreement that will allow Chinese hopefuls to travel to Argentina to train with renowned soccer clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate. Also discussed was the possibility of a future program where Argentine gym teachers and soccer trainers will move to China to train children who idolize Lionel.
— Paz Mundial (@PazMundialmv) August 24, 2016
Even though he’s still coming up in international meetings between Xi and Mauricio, Messi shocked the world last month when he announced that he would be retiring from the national Argentine team. A month later, Lionel reversed that decision.
His change of heart was much to the delight of Macri who had made personal phone calls to Messi in an effort to get him to stay on with Argentina. Though Lionel has never managed to deliver a title for his home country, many Argentines, including the president himself, consider him to be their best asset.
“It is a gift from God to have the best player in the world [Lionel] in a footballing country like ours. Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him.”
— infobae (@infobae) August 13, 2016
The news came on the heels of a tumultuous year for Lionel Messi, who is currently under scrutiny after his name appeared in connection with a shell company in the explosive Panama Papers leak. Both Mauricio Macri and Xi Jinping also appeared in the released documents.
[Photo by Lintao Zhang and Alex Caparros/Getty Images]