Whether you admire Ricardo La Volpe for his bold approach to soccer in Mexico, resent the Argentine’s seemingly arrogant attitude towards rivals, or just sit in awe recounting all of his disagreements, disputes and debates, there is no denying that the now-retired manager is an endless source of controversy.
Ranging from his playing days as a goalkeeper, when he conceded a spectacular bicycle kick goal against Hugo Sánchez and then dared the ‘Pentapichichi’ to do it again since “he wouldn’t score another (goal) like that in 100 years”-- which Sánchez did.
Going through his claim that the 2002 Apertura title Toluca won with Alberto Jorge as manager -- since La Volpe was appointed as new Mexican national team head coach mid-tournament-- should be awarded to himself. And then, his refusal to call up Cuauhtémoc Blanco to the 2006 World Cup at the peak of his playing career, seemingly because of a grudge after Blanco celebrated mockingly in front of him in a Club América - Atlas game in 1999.
Publicly calling out multiple managers and team presidents, not shaking the opposing head coach’s hand before games, wearing a dragon tie as a good luck charm, bragging about Pep Guardiola admiring his style of play and then calling him a ‘vendehumos’, and being accused of sexual harassment, ‘El Bigotón’ usually finds a way to be in the spotlight.
His most recent jewel of a statement compared Diego Lainez, to whom he handed his debut as Club América manager in 2017, to Lionel Messi, something La Volpe has done in the past. In 2020, the 1978 FIFA World Cup winner advised Mexico national team manager Gerardo Martino on how to properly use the current Betis man, since he is a “Messi type”. Now, the controversial figure doubled down on his opinion in an interview with The Athletic.
“Physically they’re the same player. I always compared Lainez to Messi because of his physical attributes and his burst off the dribble, his dribbling and his intelligence as a creator. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s a very important player for Mexico’s future”, La Volpe argued. Although the Buenos Aires native never stated Lainez and Messi both have the same level of talent, or that the young Mexican star could ever be what ‘La Pulga’ is, he did mention both of them in the same sentence.
Similarities between Messi and Lainez
Messi was born on June 24, 1987 in Rosario, Argentina, while Lainez on June 9, 2000 in Villahermosa, México. Messi is 5’7’’ while Lainez is 5’6’'. Both are left-footed attacking players. They were both born in the same month, have similar heights and play in near-identical positions on the pitch. Both players made their professional debuts at 17, Messi doing so against Espanyol in a 2004 LaLiga match and Lainez plying his trade for the first time against Santos Laguna in the 2017 Clausura Copa MX.
‘La Pulga’’s time during his first season at the Barcelona first team (2004/05) ended with a tally of nine games and one goal, totalling 238 minutes and the obtention of the LaLiga title. Lainez's first season: 11 games, registering two assists over 664 minutes. Messi played in the UEFA Champions League, and against far tougher rivals, having a slightly higher goal contribution than his Mexican counterpart.
Differences between Messi and Lainez
Messi’s meteoric rise to the height of world soccer took him a mere four years after his first team debut. During the 2008/09 season, he took over Ronaldinho’s iconic number 10 and under Guardiola’s leadership, led the ‘Culés’ to their first-ever treble. The Rosario native capped off a highly successful year with a resounding 2-0 Barcelona win over Manchester United in the Champions League final, a tournament in which he ended as top scorer with 9 goals. At the end of the year, Messi won the first of his six Ballon D’Ors, overcoming Cristiano Ronaldo in the final vote.
As for Lainez, the 2021/22 season is almost exactly four years after his first-team debut in March of 2017. Asking anyone to even come close to what Messi has achieved is impossible, and the Mexican international is no exception. After an injury had him removed from the Bronze medal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Lainez is yet to make his first appearance for Real Betis this season. Just for comparison sake, Messi’s 2008/09 season (his fourth year as a first team player) ended with 38 goals and 19 assists in 51 games.
The Club América youth product just turned 21 but has never been able to establish himself as a solid starter for ‘Los Verdiblancos’ for more than a few games at a time. Lainez is one of Mexico’s most promising players, something he showed against the U.S. in the Concacaf Nationals League final with a 79th minute goal, and regular Olympic outings from the bench, but still needs consistency to reach what an entire country expects of him.
Comparisons, especially to a legend of the game, are rarely fair. La Volpe, as an experienced manager and with a 40-year long career in soccer, should know that doing so with Lainez and Messi will only tack on unnecessary pressure on the 21-year old. All we should expect from the left-footed virtuoso born in Villahermosa is stability, professionalism, and a spark of brilliance here and there that will have ‘El Bigotón’ mentioning him in the same sentence as ‘La Pulga’ once again.