Argentina set off on Messi's quest

Published on Nov 16, 2022 06:04 PM IST

For so many years now, the world has waited for the Argentine genius to rise up to the very top. Will 2022 finally see him hold the trophy?

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates his goal during the second half of an international friendly (AP)
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates his goal during the second half of an international friendly (AP)
By, New Delhi

For four successive World Cups, the world in general and Argentina, in particular, have waited to pronounce Lionel Messi as the sole heir to Diego Maradona’s throne. And despite Messi’s wizardry with the ball, his clutch of goals and assists for club and country, his seven Ballon d’Or crowns and most other trophies in his cabinet, the world has stopped just short of bestowing upon him the “greatest ever” tag.

Maradona single-handedly took Argentina to the biggest prize in football — the World Cup trophy in 1986. Messi is yet to achieve that feat.

Winning the Copa America last year has lifted a weight of international failure off Messi’s shoulders and there is a feeling he will have his best World Cup in Qatar. And now, more than ever — as Messi at 35 quietly plies his trade at PSG away from the spotlight of Barcelona, his speed, sharpness and agility to some extent diminished, and is unlikely to turn up for the 2026 World Cup — it seems that the beautiful game owes its fading master a World Cup crown.

There are reasons to believe that and those reasons are not merely emotional.

Favourites tag

After a really long time, Argentina are going into a World Cup bereft of controversy. Their build-up has been near perfect. They are on a 35-match unbeaten run which is just two matches shy of what Italy achieved under Roberto Mancini between 2018 and 2021.

They have an outstanding goalkeeper in Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez and a leader in their defence in 24-year-old Cristian Romero of Spurs after the defensive mainstay of the 2018 World Cup side Javier Mascherano and Marcos Rojo were dropped as was striker Gonzalo Higuain. Argentina found his replacement in Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez. And of course, the leader of the pack, Messi finally seems comfortable and happy in the midst of the mix of youth and experience in the Argentine squad.

EA Sports, among its innumerable wrong predictions in the group stage and knockout matches, has predicted every World Cup winner since 2010 using FIFA simulations — Spain, Germany and France. This time using FIFA 23, it has predicted Argentina to lift the trophy next month. And bookies have placed Argentina (13/2) third behind perpetual favourites Brazil (4/1) and defending champions France (6/1).

Two non-European teams among the top three favourites may seem to be an anomaly but consider this: seven of the last eight World Cup finalists have been from Europe and 13 of the last 16 semi-finalists too.

Build-up to the Cup

But the world’s hopes on Argentina are based on the manner in which the Albiceleste have turned things around. After the two-time World Cup champions (1978 and 1986) bowed out of the 2018 edition losing to France in the pre-quarter-finals, the Argentina national team experienced a sea change. Coach Jorge Sampaoli’s reign was cut short. Lionel Scaloni, who had been an assistant to Sampaoli, took over on an interim basis together with Pablo Aimar, his teammate in his playing days. Slowly but surely and not without criticism, Scaloni with his former teammates Aimar, Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel in the coaching staff, changed the narrative and fortunes of the team.

The 2021 Copa America title ended Argentina’s 28-year-wait to become champions of South America. And the final win over Brazil at the iconic Maracana Stadium was the icing on the cake. The 3-0 win over European Championship winners Italy in the intercontinental cup at the Wembley Stadium in June was Messi’s second trophy with the national team and the Lionels seemed to have bonded.

"I see him as always... eager to enjoy the World Cup," Scaloni told reporters on Wednesday. "He knows how to play wearing this jersey. He's enjoying his team mates, training sessions, the stay and the whole process."

Tricky road ahead

Argentina, ranked third by FIFA, are likely to top Group C which also has Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia. Mexico managed just two draws in four matches against USA and Canada in their qualifiers and Robert Lewandowski’s Poland qualified after beating Sweden in the playoffs. Coached by Herve Renard, the only manager to win the African Cup of Nations with two countries, Zambia in 2021 and Ivory Coast in 2015, Saudi Arabia are the weakest team in the group but they come to Qatar on the back of conceding just one goal in 10 games in the final phase of the Asian qualifiers.

The knockout matches could see Argentina facing France yet again in the last-16 if the defending champions fail to top Group D. Netherlands or Senegal could be their potential quarter-final opponents and a Brazil-Argentina semi-final is very much on the cards. But this Argentina, devoid of much star power could overcome them all mainly because over the past three years they have become an industrious unit where players are ready to support each other. With Messi pulling the strings from deep and playing a role more as a provider than a scorer, who knows?

"We are very excited. We have a very nice group that is very eager, but we think about going little by little," Messi told the South American federation CONMEBOL. "We hope to start the World Cup in the best way to face everything that comes after. The more you play and the more time you spend on the pitch, the more you get to know each other."

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Nilankur Das, who heads the Delhi sports team, has reported on cricket, football and archery for 16 years.

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