BSS : 4 NOVEMBER, 2022, 6:12 PM
Lionel Messi has been building up to this moment, aware that his fifth World Cup with Argentina almost certainly represents his last chance to get his hands on the trophy.
In July he reported back a week early for pre-season training with Paris Saint-Germain and since then he has looked like a man on a mission, determined to head to Qatar in the best shape possible.
After a difficult first year at PSG in which he struggled to overcome the trauma of his departure from Barcelona, Messi is now back to something like his best and has scored or assisted 26 goals in 18 games for his club this season.
Meanwhile, in Argentina a nation has been holding its breath, hoping the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner does not succumb to an untimely injury.
Messi first went to a World Cup as a teenager in 2006 and has scored a record 90 goals from a record 164 caps.
He captained Argentina to the final of the 2014 World Cup but 2018 was a desperate disappointment, with Jorge Sampaoli’s side losing in the last 16 to a France team featuring Kylian Mbappe, now Messi’s teammate in Paris.
Now aged 35, Messi goes to Qatar remarkably still looking to score his first goal in the knockout stages of a World Cup, never mind actually win it.
“I feel good physically at the moment. Better than last year, when I arrived at PSG. But when I said this could be my last World Cup, I did so because of my age. After this one finishes we will see how I’m feeling,” he said in a recent interview with Directv Sports.
“For us, like for all Argentines, it is difficult to be calm, because we are contenders to win the World Cup.
“But to win the World Cup you need lots of things to go in your favour, in any given match or in the competition as a whole. But we are going there to fight and we are ready to take on anyone.”
– Different role –
If Messi is to emulate Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to their last World Cup triumph in 1986, he cannot do it alone.
There may be nobody as good as him in Lionel Scaloni’s side, but they appear a much more convincing team than four years ago, when they were fortunate just to get out of their group in Russia.
Argentina go to Qatar on a 35-game unbeaten run that includes their victory in last year’s Copa America, their first major tournament success since 1993.
There are more survivors from 2018, including Angel Di Maria, who scored the winner against Brazil at the Maracana in that Copa America final.
But there are others who have become key players under Scaloni, from Cristian Romero in central defence to Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo de Paul in midfield and Lautaro Martinez up front.
Martinez, the 25-year-old Inter Milan striker, matched Messi’s tally of seven goals in qualifying and certainly removes some of the pressure on his captain in that department.
Messi’s role in the team has changed, according to Omar Larrosa, who played in the Argentina side that won the 1978 World Cup on home soil.
“I think he’s going to be different in this World Cup. He is the one making others play now, whereas at previous World Cups his teammates were always giving him the ball,” Larrosa told AFP.
“I think he’s doing his job very well now. You can’t ask any more of him.”
As skipper, Messi is not only an inspiration to his teammates because of what he does with the ball, as footage released this week of his speech inside the dressing room before last year’s Copa America final showed.
If Argentina go all the way to the final in Doha then Messi will have the chance to overtake the record for most matches played at a World Cup, which is currently held by Lothar Matthaeus on 25.
But winning the trophy is all that matters to him.
He may be arguably the greatest player of all time, but it is now or never if he is to crown a magnificent career by winning the greatest prize of all.
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