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More at stake than Messi's magic

sports Updated: Aug 31, 2011 11:10 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
messi in kolkata

In search of a new dawn, Argentina have flown east.

For neutrals, Lionel Messi is the body and the soul of Argentina's friendly against Venezuela in Kolkata on Friday. To market a match, sell its television rights to over 150 countries, you can't get a better drawcard than the planet's best footballer.

Messi's begun the new season like he ended the old, with stunning goals and assists for Barcelona, which for him is definitely more than a club. It is a concept that made Messi what he is; a footballer who transports the world sport into the realms of the unbelievable as regularly as day follows night. After starting their World Cup campaign with a win, Argentina coach Diego Maradona had said: "Football's worth watching if Messi has the ball. Taking the ball away from him is like taking chocolate from a kid."

And less than one week before reaching Kolkata, he won another award, a glistening silver-plated torso with his name shining bright. These days, awards don't get their due unless the boy from Rosario imprints his name on it.

A new start for the albiceleste
But for Argentina, the Kolkata stopover and the visit to Dhaka are an important stepping stones in restoring the reputation of what still is, rightly, a proud football nation. One that is among three teams to have won the World Cup outside its continent. Under a new coach somewhat surprisingly nicknamed both 'Pachorra' (slowcoach) and El Mago (the magician), the process of starting over will begin under lights at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan.

The journey will be arduous and fraught with pitfalls (ask Sergio Batista) but one which Argentina hope will end a 28-year wait for a World Cup title.

Alejandro Sabella begins his time as Argentina coach on Friday knowing that teams on a similar rebuilding curve --- among those who have won the World Cup, that is - have already got a headstart on the road to Brazil. Think Italy, France or even Brazil all of whom appointed new coaches almost a year before Argentina. Or think Spain, Germany, England or Uruguay whose head coaches survived South Africa and are now looking to break new ground in South America.

Patches of brilliance
For the former midfielder to catch up with Argentina's rivals for the World Cup statuette, Messi will have to be the leader he hasn't yet been in blue and white stripes.

After the disappointment of the 2006 World Cup where Messi, really, was a bit-player and the 2007 Copa America where Brazil felled them with three sucker punches, the beginning was promising in South Africa. Messi got involved early against Nigeria in the opener at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium. On that day, one left-footer after another by Messi was stopped by Nigeria's goalie Vincent Enyema who was adjudged Man of the Match. Messi followed up his assisting act by contributing to all four goals Argentina scored against South Korea, three of them from Gonzalo Higuain who is in Sabella's squad for Kolkata. Twice, Messi wove past South Koreans making them chase shadows.

Against Greece in Polokwane and on the 24th anniversary of the Hand-of-God goal, he wore the captain's armband for the first time and the giant screen at the Peter Mokaba Stadium flashed: "Messi-ah, how can a god play among men?" Again Messi didn't score but was adjudged Man of the Match. "It is indeed very special to be captain. It was a pleasant surprise and experience," he said, after the 2-0 win.

It's been largely downhill since. At Cape Town's Green Point Stadium, the Germans punished Argentina like Icarus was for flying too close to the sun. The Copa America was worse, Messi's only goal coming from a penalty in the shootout against Uruguay. Argentina exited their own party early, Messi looking drab just weeks after Barcelona gave the world a stunning football show using Manchester United as prop.

Ferenc Puskas, Stanley Matthews, George Best, Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and George Weah are some supremely gifted footballers to have never won a World Cup. For Messi to end that aberration in Brazil, Kolkata will be an important first step like it was with Carlos Bilardo's Argentina in the 1984 Nehru Cup. The World Cup qualifiers beginning in October will be the next.

Sosa detained
Argentine midfielder José Sosa was detained for hours at the Dubai airport on Tuesday after he was denied visa on arrival. Sosa was to arrive in Kolkata via New Delhi at 3.15pm.