“The most important thing is to compete well and then God and Messi will decide if we can win the World Cup,” Argentina president Mauricio Macri said of his country’s chances of winning the tournament in Russia.
No pressure then, Lionel.
Despite his remarkable career, Messi has never been able to lead his country to a major championship victory. There was the 2014 World Cup final defeat and, in the Copa America, back-to-back disappointments in 2015 and 2016 finals.
With Messi turning 31 during this summer’s World Cup, this could be his last chance to lift the most coveted trophy in football.
The focus is on the Argentina captain. Messi’s relationship with the Argentina fans is a complicated one. He was dubbed ‘The Catalan’ for leaving his homeland to join Barcelona as a teenager and the perception is that he does not reproduce his brilliant club form for his country. But that could all change if he and his team-mates can achieve success in Russia.
Messi, an Olympic gold medal winner who has 126 caps and 64 international goals, knows his importance to the team but the weight of expectation he feels in that role was highlighted when he retired from Argentina duty after missing a penalty in their shoot-out Copa America final defeat to Chile in 2016.
Fans rallied around him and persuaded a dejected Messi to return to the international fold, giving them hope of glory once again. Sometimes he is taken for granted in Argentina, but that was the moment they realised he was irreplaceable.
Messi has been to three World Cups already, witnessing two quarter-final defeats as well as that painful final defeat in 2014, when Mario Gotze fired Germany to the title in Brazil. He will not be fazed by the challenge, then – but this is not a vintage Argentina squad.
The forward line looks impressive, with world-class strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, who can boast 68 international goals between them, both heading to Russia and looking to feed off Messi’s creativity.
There is little Messi can do about the defence, though. Experienced goalkeeper Sergio Romero has been ruled out with injury, leaving the three choices to start between sticks with just nine caps between them.
In the backline, there is a collection of defenders who would be filed as good but not world class. Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Marcos Rojo are those likely to be tasked with being the foundation of a top-heavy team. They lost 6-1 in a recent friendly against Spain; a sign of the uphill struggle they face in Russia.
Their qualification campaign was not a smooth one, needing to win their last game against Ecuador to avoid failing to make it to the World Cup for the first time since 1970. Luckily, Messi was at his best and scored a hat-trick to see them through.
It was a signal of what he can do to dominate a fixture alone. Argentina had conceded after 40 seconds in Quito but Messi summoned his talents and energy to book their place in Russia. Now they’re there, Messi, like the man he is always compared to, Diego Maradona, has the potential to drag Argentina to the final stages.
He’ll know this could be his last true chance. Messi will be 35 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around.
His fitness and dedication cannot be questioned, so there are no reasons why he shouldn’t part of the Argentina squad in four years’ time. And, like many players, he could drop deeper as his physical powers diminish. But this might be the last time he has the power to win big games on his own.
A favourable group of Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland awaits Argentina and with Messi going to Russia on the back of scoring 34 goals in 36 La Liga games, their main man is in fine form.
He was the Golden Ball winner four years ago, scoring four of his five World Cup goals en route to the final, and Argentina will need him to have another dominant tournament to make up for their weaknesses elsewhere across the pitch.
Of all the players in Russia, if there is one man with the record and ability to secure the trophy, then Messi is that man. He won’t be short on motivation.
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