A vineyard near Mendoza, June 2011. The manager had just learned I was a journalist covering the Copa América and was determined to find out why I thought Argentina were underperforming – which is to say, she was determined to tell me why she thought they were underperforming. I suggested there was a superabundance of attacking talent, that maybe Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi couldn't usefully play together. "Then we must drop Messi," she said.
She was absolutely serious, and she wasn't alone. I began to put the case for Messi, but she cut me off. "Maybe technically Messi is better," she said, "but Tevez ..." She patted her heart. "Tevez has spirit, and in the biggest games you need spirit." Yet the probability is that come the biggest games of all, Alejandro Sabella, the Argentina manager, will decide he doesn't need Tevez. The forward turned 30 on Wednesday and should be at his peak, but it looks increasingly unlikely that he will be included in Argentina's World Cup squad.
A few days earlier, I'd been in Santa Fe, in Messi's home province, for Argentina's game against Colombia. You approach the stadium down a long boulevard lined with stalls selling choripán and knock-off replica shirts. Some had Messi's name on the back, but the most popular shirt by far was Tevez's. When the pitchside announcer read out the teams, he called Messi el mejor jugador del mundo – the best player in the world – to which the crowd gave a muted cheer; he then described Tevez as el jugador del pueblo – the player of the people – which brought a great roar.
Messi had left Argentina early, had never fully captured local passions; with his fluffy hair and his clean-cut image, the perception was that he'd had it easy. Tevez, by contrast, was an authentic pibe, the child of the slums identified by Borocotó, the editor of El Gráfico in 1928, as representing the authentic spirit of the Argentinian game. When Borocotó wrote of his archetype as having "a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday's bread," he might have been describing Tevez (or indeed Diego Maradona, which only added to the general identification with Tevez).
Those few days in 2011 represented the height of Tevez mania. Within a week, he had missed a penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out against Uruguay. Within a couple of months, Tevez had fallen out with Roberto Mancini on the bench in Munich, and was back in Argentina playing golf. The pragmatic Sabella had replaced Sergio Batista as national coach and used Tevez's lack of playing time as an excuse to drop him. "Playing for Argentina takes away prestige," Tevez commented sourly, a phrase that drained much of his public support, offering a reminder that, in 2003, as he'd celebrated Boca winning the title at Racing, he'd joined fans in abusive chants about la selección.
As the columnist Cristian Grosso pointed out in La Canchallena, Tevez has become a specialist at fighting his way back into teams he seems to have no part of. Argentina began the 2004 Copa América with a front three of César Delgado, Javier Saviola and Kily González, but by the semi-final Tevez was a starter. They began the Copa América in 2007 with Juan Román Riquelme playing behind Hernán Crespo and Messi; when Crespo was injured he was replaced by Diego Milito, yet by the semi-final Tevez was again a starter. He might not even have made the 2011 Copa América, but for a public outcry and the intervention of the governor of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli. Batista has since said he wouldn't have selected Tevez but for "political pressure".
Part of the problem, though, was that he joined a squad that had little sympathy for him, and was committed to dancing to Messi's tune. Scioli has been at it again this week, describing Tevez as "a great motivator, with great garra", but Sabella is unlikely to be swayed as Batista was. And, besides, there is the issue of Messi.
There has been no bust-up, no specific reason for ill feeling, but Messi is known to be no great fan of Tevez and, politically, as his performances for Argentina have begun to hit the levels he achieves for Barcelona, he is increasingly influential. Sabella began the qualifying series with a 4-4-1-1, with Messi playing behind Gonzalo Higuaín, but by the end, apparently on Messi's request, the shape had switched to 4-3-3, with Messi on the right and Sergio Agüero on the left.
Tevez's other problem, of course, is Argentina's wealth of talent in forward areas. As well as Messi, Higuaín and Agüero, there are Ezequiel Lavezzi, Rodrigo Palacio, Angel di María, Javier Pastore, Erik Lamela and Ricky Álvarez contending for places at the front end of the team. Argentina's is a squad that can comfortably afford to be without a talent who doesn't conform.
On the day of the World Cup draw, Osvaldo Ardiles was still insisting that Tevez would find a way back into the side – and on ability and form it's hard to deny he deserves a place in the squad at least. Perhaps he will make it, but the people have fallen out of love with the jugador del pueblo and the Messi-Sabella axis is stronger than Batista ever was. The pressure is nowhere near as strong as it was three years ago and the probability is that, at 30, Tevez has already played his last World Cup game.