The first time Yamila Rodriguez’s head popped out of the dugout during Argentina’s game against South Africa and her light-blue-tinted hair was visible in the stands, an Argentinian fan sitting near my seat in the media tribune exclaimed: “Look at her, that one is the anti-Messi.”

Rodriguez arrived at the Women’s World Cup after being the top scorer in the Copa America 2022, with six goals. In the third-place play-off match — a game which afforded the winners a place at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand — the Albiceleste were trailing with 12 minutes to go.

Rodriguez levelled the match and, in stoppage time, made sure of her side’s qualification with a third goal, after Florencia Bonsegundo had made it 2-1 in the final minute. Rodriguez became the heroine and she began to grow in popularity with Argentina fans.

She is a fast player who likes to sprint down the flank and has an eye for goal. ‘Gambetear’, as they say in Argentina. She has a lot of cheek on the pitch and thrives in the face of adversity.

Many children want to be like her and she was the most acclaimed at the national team’s farewell when they started their World Cup adventure.

She is one of the three players who come to mind if you ask fans about Argentine players. She is one of the most-loved members of the dressing room.

Hers is the first goal scored by a woman in the Bombonera. And she was one of the players who, in 2019, signed the first professional contracts in Argentina, in a country where the league is still considered semi-professional.

She plays the way she lives and lives the way she plays, pushing forward no matter what.

So given all that, how did she go from being an idol to generating hatred among some fans?

A week before the start of the World Cup, FIFA published interviews with some of the most charismatic players from each national team. Rodriguez was one of those chosen by Argentina.

In it, the journalist asked her about two of the many tattoos that cover her body.

One of them, on her thigh, is of Diego Armando Maradona. So far, so good. But on the same leg, below the knee — where the socks and shin guards end — Cristiano Ronaldo’s face appears.

The historic rivalry between Lionel Messi and the Portuguese is a defined chapter in football history. The existence of this tattoo surprised some of the fans, who were unaware of this detail, despite the fact she has had it for years.

“I am always asked why Cristiano over Messi? I appreciate him a lot as a person and a player,” Rodriguez explained in the interview. “Cristiano Ronaldo is better every day, he’s my idol and that’s it.”

And about Maradona, she said it was “because of what he gave for the national team”. Some of the fans took offence, inferring that she was saying Messi did not have the same way of defending the Argentina shirt.

In Argentina there is an expression called ‘carpetazo’, and it refers to when you use a newspaper archive to disseminate compromising information about a public figure.

And that’s what they did. Some fans began to search Rodriguez’s social networks until they came across the tweets that, according to them, corroborated that Rodriguez didn’t like Messi.

“Para cuando vuelve a renunciar a la selección el pecho frío este,” (“When will this cold chest resign from the national team again?”) she wrote on July 2, 2019. It is a sample of some of the tweets — now deleted — that saw the light of day in the wake of that.

“She can have whatever tattoos she wants — what she can’t be is a Messi hater,” the Argentina fan who called her anti-Messi at Dunedin Stadium explained to The Athletic.

“She’s a public figure. She can’t put up the tweets she put up and then delete them. She can’t expect people to forget about that.”

“I’m not doing well,” Rodriguez wrote on social media, posted above an image of Ronaldo embracing Messi.

“I never said I was anti-Messi,” she wrote. “I never would be.”


— Yamii Rodriguez⚽ (@YamiiRoddriguez) July 25, 2023

The reality is Rodriguez has never sought to be liked.

Perhaps that is why she has always identified with Ronaldo. In football he shares her position and she admires him, for his football ability but also for his personality. He doesn’t care what people say; he is motivated by criticism. She is like that too.

She is a charismatic player, with all the good and bad that comes with charisma. She has always spoken her mind, even if it was politically incorrect.

And speaking her mind has led to more than one controversy.

In 2022 she publicly supported a player from Boca Juniors, a team she also played for and is a fan of.

The player in question was Sebastian Villa, who at the time was accused of “gender-based violence”, later being given a suspended prison sentence.

“Bancandote siempre mi pana,” (always supporting you, my friend), she posted on her social networks with a photograph of herself wearing a Boca Juniors shirt with Villa’s shirt number on it.

This caused a lot of commotion and a barrage of criticism because of the serious accusations against him.

In Argentina football is as important — if not more important — than religion. It is a country that is very passionate about the sport. Just look at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, venue for this exciting 2-2 draw between Rodriguez’s side and South Africa. It’s 12 noon and all you see on the streets are Argentinians with drums and painted faces. It is the first match where I see fans from other countries travelling to the World Cup. The stadium is half empty, but the fans manage to make it feel full.

They have a long playlist of songs to sing throughout the match and they don’t repeat any of them. Next to them, you might feel your own love of football is insignificant.

“In Argentina, football is everything. Sometimes someone’s father or mother has died and they’d rather go to the ‘cancha’ to watch football than to the funeral,” an Argentina fan told me at half-time.

And in this logic in which football is religion, Messi is on a par with a god in their eyes. To feel that he is being attacked is to feel they are directly attacking the soul of Argentina.

“Whoever is Argentinian loves Messi always. He is everything,” the fan concluded.

But, regarding the love for the Inter Miami player, it has not always been the case in Argentina that he should be beyond criticism.

Though the public fiercely supports Messi after lifting Argentina’s third World Cup for the men’s side in December, bringing glory to a country still grieving the death of their beloved Maradona, there was a time that same public was fiercely critical of him.

The criticism and pressure were so profound that they contributed to Messi retiring, prematurely, from international duty in 2016. It was then, inside MetLife Stadium after losing to Chile on penalties in a Copa America final, that Messi said his time with the senior team was over. “The national team is over for me,” he said, after suffering another loss in a major final with his team. (The Argentine federation at that time was also in disarray, with FIFA taking control to clean things up.)

Back then, critics questioned if Messi could ever live up to Maradona’s legacy. How could he if he didn’t play with pride while representing the Albiceleste? How could he if he never won a World Cup for his country? The pressure was all-consuming. Some might call it toxic.

Yamila Rodriguez (Photo: Joe Allison – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

That same toxic energy has now reached Rodriguez, who has asked the public to stop with the hateful rhetoric on social media — something which is hardly helping Las Pibas’ hopes’ of winning a group-stage match.

“We can’t be in people’s heads who believe certain things — it’s simply a way of thinking,” Argentina manager German Portanova said before the match against South Africa.

“To believe one thing doesn’t mean you don’t agree with something else. And, well, to explain that to people, all of that, maybe, is too cumbersome — and really it seems crazy to me.

“To give you the headline: It’s madness, incredible madness.

“We can’t enter the minds of all the people who respond very aggressively (on social media), we just ask that — (to understand) the other side of things. It’s just an opinion. We aren’t against anyone — the complete opposite.”

In the match against South Africa Rodriguez came on after an hour. Both teams were playing for their lives, playing to have a remote chance of staying alive in the World Cup.

The South Americans were trailing 2-0 when Rodriguez took to the field, but she changed the team and led the comeback.

Sophia Braun pulled one back from long range with a stunning strike. The team woke up and the second came: Rodriguez crossed a perfect ball for Romina Nunez, her friend, to score the equaliser.

In the final minutes, you could tell Rodriguez was desperate to score. For her team, for her country and possibly also for herself. Out of anger, maybe.

She ran as if her legs did not weigh her down — the same legs that have been the focus of controversy over the past few days.

The referee blew the final whistle and Rodriguez dropped to the ground. The palms of her hands were on her knees and she stared at the sky. As if praying. Maybe she was.

She came out to speak to the media afterwards. I had already been told of her charisma, and it took me two seconds to see for myself. She came out smiling, as if a storm of criticism and hatred hadn’t fallen on her that week. As if she hadn’t felt compelled to post a defensive message on social media.

Her short, light-blue hair — the colour of Argentina — caught the eye as soon as she walked through the door of the tunnel. She joked with the journalists. In the middle of an interview, she sees a journalist friend passing by, calls out to her and greets her warmly. The first question that occurs to me to ask her comes to me almost by itself. “How are you?”

“Happy, do I look sad?” she replies with a smile.

“That’s over now. I’m fine, happy. If they see me in a bad way, they’re mistaken. I go out to enjoy myself, to laugh and to enjoy this beautiful sport.

“If I’m bad I would have gone to my mother to be hugged, but I’m here enjoying myself.”

She has many tattoos. Yes, Ronaldo’s, and Maradona’s too. But the most visible and the one that catches my attention is on her neck. It’s simple, it only has one word. ‘Resiliencia’ (resilience). As she leaves the mixed zone with a smile, I think this is possibly the tattoo that represents her best.

(Top photos: Getty Images)