SAN FRANCISCO -- Lionel Messi is probably the top sportsman in the world right now. Unless you ask fans in Argentina where the soccer star was born and grew up in a town called Rosario, roughly 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.
After helping his club, Spain's FC Barcelona, win most of the top awards in 2009, Messi was named World Player of the Year by FIFA, soccer's governing body.
He received the 2009 Ballon D'Or, given to Europe's top player, based on the votes of journalists around the world. Messi won this honor by the widest margin since it was first awarded in 1956. He even won the Latino Athlete of the Year 2009.
But when it came time for Argentina to pick its top athlete, the soccer-mad country chose tennis player Juan Martin del Potro, a relative unknown on the world sports stage until his U.S. Open win last year.
Messi has been criticized in the Argentine press for not playing as well for the national team as he does for Barcelona. Argentina has been one of the strongest soccer countries in the world, along with Brazil, Italy and Germany. But the Albicelestes, as they're known, almost failed to qualify for this year's World Cup in South Africa. Read MarketWatch's World Cup blog: http://blogs.marketwatch.com/worldcup/
"Nothing new: Messi has once again disappointed in the Albiceleste shirt," Argentine daily newspaper La Nacion declared after a lackluster performance in a World Cup qualifying match against Peru in October.
Messi moved to Spain to train with Barcelona in his early teens and some critics have questioned his commitment to Argentina's national team -- stirring strong emotion in the superstar.
"I get angry when they say I have no feeling for the Albicelestes," Messi said in a December interview with Spain's leading newspaper El Pais. "Nothing upsets me more than to say that I am not Argentine. Who knows of my feelings?"
The controversy puts the diminutive 22 year-old Argentine at the center of one of the biggest battles in soccer -- between the richest clubs who pay the superstars, and international organizations such as FIFA which run international tournaments including the World Cup.
On the surface, it's about who gets access to top players, like Messi, and who pays when they get injured. Dig a little deeper and it's about power and money.
"There's always been tension between playing for your club and your country," said Ian Blackshaw, an international sports law expert at the TMC Asser International Sports Law Centre in The Hague. "This tension will always exist because football is a matter of power politics and it's all fueled by money. It's not only the world's favorite sport but the most lucrative."
This tension is rising as national teams prepare for the 2010 World Cup starting in June, while club teams in Europe battle for supremacy in seasons that typically end in the spring. Add in the Africa Cup of Nations, which has been running for most of January, and the competition for talent is intense.
There's a lot of money at stake. The last World Cup in Germany drew a cumulative television audience of over 26 billion -- almost six times the number of people who watched the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Advertisers will pay a lot to reach such a large audience. FIFA got roughly $2.7 billion for the television broadcast rights to this year's World Cup.
Part of the draw is to see superstars like Messi, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazilian Kaka pitted against each other in an electric atmosphere fueled by national pride.
FIFA, as the organizer, gets that money. Clubs like Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid, which pay tens of millions of euros employing superstars, see little of the cash directly.
"International tournaments now generate very significant sums of money and historically the clubs have not benefited from this. So clubs feel aggrieved that they're providing free labour for others to make money," said Richard Parrish, professor of sports law at Edge Hill University in the U.K. "My employer doesn't allow a competitor to make free use of my labor and neither, I suspect, does yours."
So why do top players take part in the World Cup?
One reason is that FIFA regulations mandate involvement in top international tournaments, said Michael Gerlinger, director of legal affairs at Bayern Munich, Germany's largest soccer club. Some international matches don't come with an obligation to release top players and clubs regularly refuse to take part in those, he noted.
There's also the pull of pride in playing for your country. If players perform well in top international tournaments their value increases, which can trickle down to the clubs that employ them.
"If players become more valuable that trickles down to the clubs," Blackshaw noted.
These arguments become more strained when players have to take part in other international tournaments, like the Olympics and the Africa Cup of Nations.
In 2008, Barcelona and two other clubs -- FC Schalke 04 and SV Werder Bremen -- challenged a FIFA requirement that they release under-23 players for the soccer tournament at the Beijing Olympics.
They won the legal battle, which freed up Messi to play for Barcelona. He ended up playing for Argentina in the Olympics anyway, but the court victory made it clear clubs don't always have to follow FIFA orders.
The Africa Cup of Nations is controversial because it runs in the middle of the club season in Europe, where most of the top players ply their trade.
"The clubs object to what they consider pointless friendly internationals at crucial times of the season. They also object to competitions that (privately) they have no time for," Parrish said. "The African Cup of Nations comes at a critical time in the European club calendar and some competitions such as the Olympics are considered a joke."
More than 20 players from the U.K.'s top soccer league traveled to Angola for this year's Africa Cup of Nations. Chelsea FC, a big London club, saw four important players leave: Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi and Salomon Kalou.
This tournament may expose club-versus-country tensions more than any other. While many top European clubs consider the event a poorly-timed intrusion into their season, the event is huge in Africa and players such as Drogba support it passionately.
What upsets clubs most is when their superstars get injured either training for such tournaments or playing in them.
Essien suffered medial ligament damage while training with the Ghana national team last week. Chelsea said he'll be out of action for up to six weeks, missing important games against London rival Arsenal and Italian giant Inter Milan.
Chelsea could have demanded that the Ghana Football Association pay Essien's wages of 120,000 pounds a week while he's injured. However, the club decided not to pursue the demand because such a move could financially cripple Ghanaian football.
In contrast, Arsenal is seeking compensation from the Dutch Football Federation after the club lost star Robin van Persie for most of the season when the player injured his ankle during a recent friendly match for the Netherlands against Italy.
Another club in a similar situation sued, and the case turned into one of the biggest challenges to FIFA's power over the game.
Abdelmajid Oulmers tore ankle ligaments playing in a friendly international match for Morocco in 2004. He was unable to play for eight months, so his Belgian club, Royal Sporting Club of Charleroi, took FIFA to the European Court of Justice, challenging their right to demand automatic release of players for friendly international games.
"The Oulmers case threatened the legality of the FIFA regulations, i.e. the obligation of the clubs to release players to national associations," Bayern Munich's Gerlinger said. "Naturally, very important."
A group of the richest clubs, which became known as the G-14, joined the suit, adding serious financial firepower.
However, the case ended up being withdrawn in 2008 after an out-of-court settlement between FIFA and the G-14.
FIFA agreed to pay clubs for making players available for international matches. For this year's World Cup, $40 million is available to clubs through their national soccer associations. For the 2014 tournament in Brazil, $70 million will be paid by FIFA.
The G-14 also formed the European Club Association and got more of a say in decisions about international soccer, such as when games are played.
"The case was the only method for G-14 clubs to change the situation, since the federations refused talking to them," said Gerlinger, who is also a representative of the European Club Association. "The agreements changed the basis of the case fundamentally -- clubs did have to release players without compensation, now they get their share in the benefits."
Gerlinger's club, Bayern Munich, got 1 million euros for releasing stars to play in the Euro 2008 tournament in 2008, he noted.
All this has reduced tension between clubs and international organizations like FIFA, Gerlinger said.
However, not everything is rosy, according to Parrish. UEFA, soccer's governing body for Europe, could clash with the European Club Association in future, he noted.
"Clubs are still concerned about the welfare of their players whilst away on international duty," Parrish added, citing Arsenal's legal action after Van Persie's recent injury.
The shift in power to top clubs may also fail to change how soccer fans see such tension.
The only way Messi may win the hearts of more fans in Argentina is to play as well or better for his country than his stunning performances for Barcelona. Supporters of the club back in Spain are hoping he doesn't get injured trying to meet that challenge.