Time is running out for Messi, but will the World Cup stars line up?
DOHA: Spain coach Luis Enrique said earlier this week that it would be “unfair” if Argentina star Lionel Messi did not win the World Cup.
But the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is running out of time and opportunities. Along with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, it will likely be the fifth and last World Cup for one of two iconic players of their generation – believed by many to be the greatest footballers of all time.
Unlike previous contenders for the title of best player of all time – Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Diego Maradona – at least one, and possibly both, won’t be lifting football’s biggest prize. But in Messi’s case, this could be his best chance yet to win that elusive prize.
He cut an astonishing number in 2014 after Argentina lost 1-0 to Germany in the final in Brazil, and even briefly announced his international retirement in 2016. He changed his mind and last year led Argentina to their first major title in 28 years, defeating the hosts Brazil went into the Copa America final with the same scoreline and in the same Maracana stadium where they stumbled seven years ago.
Argentina go into this tournament on the back of a 36-match unbeaten run as one of the clear favourites. Their group doesn’t appear, on paper at least, to be the most taxing. They start against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, followed by clashes with Mexico and Poland.
“Argentina are one of the favorites for the entire World Cup,” said Polish striker Robert Lewandowski earlier this week. “They are unbeaten in 30 singles matches, they are very dangerous opponents for everyone.”
As the new sweetheart at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, this season Lewandowski has been able to see the legacy Messi left behind in Catalonia. “He is a Barcelona legend. You see that everywhere in the club,” said the Pole.
“He’s the leader of Argentina, and one of the best players. We know who we’re going to play against, it’s a big challenge.” Along with the inexperienced but self-assured Saudi, Levnadowski will likely be among the last players to have a World Cup match against Messi.
Midfielder Abd al-Ilah al-Maliki insists he will not be affected by the occasion. He said, “He is a legend and the dream of any player to play against him, but we represent Saudi Arabia and we do not fear anyone.”
Messi’s predecessor as an icon for Argentina, Maradona ensured his footballing immortality by inspiring his country to win their second world title in 1986. Messi would very much like to add World Cup glory to all his other accolades which include four Champions League titles and 10 titles. in the Spanish league. .
And he is not alone. “If Spain did not win the World Cup, I would like Argentina to win it because of Messi,” Enrique, who coached Messi at Barcelona for three years, said on Twitch earlier this week. “It would be unfair for Messi to retire without winning the World Cup.”
There is a feeling that despite the recent retirement of attacking talents such as Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina have a better balance in the squad than in previous years.
In addition to Messi, fellow veterans Ángel Di Maria and Lautaro Martínez provide momentum and deception in attack. A hard-working midfield featuring Rodrigo de Paul, Leandro Paredes and Alexis McAllister, and tenacious defenders such as Christian Romero and Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez, the good hands of Emiliano Martinez keep the net. It really is now or never for Messi, but there is a growing sense in Argentina that this will be the international swan that a nation and legend have always dreamed of.
Match of the day
Argentina VS Saudi Arabia
3:00 PM Pacific Time