For one of the most decorated footballers in the history of the game, a World Cup win remains the only missing piece in the trophy cabinet.
Lionel Messi is the only constant. Everything else is variable. This is the Argentina team for the 2018 World Cup finals in a nutshell. Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentina head coach, has an impressive managerial CV, which includes a Copa America triumph with Chile. In charge of Argentina, though, he is seemingly happy to cede control to his captain.
The 23-man Argentina squad has a high-profile omission—Mauro Icardi. The Inter Milan captain was in excellent form last term, scoring 30 goals in 38 appearances for Nerazzurri. Grapevine has it that the 25-year-old centre-forward doesn’t get on with Messi, which became his bugbear. Icardi probably had pre-empted it. “It’s nothing strange,” he told Ole.
Javier Mascherano, the veteran defender, has been picked despite the fact that he is done with top-flight club football and now plies his trade for Hebei China Fortune. Mascherano and Messi are said to be close friends on and off the pitch and the latter reportedly became emotional when the 34-year-old left Camp Nou to join the Chinese Super League in January this year.
Ossie Ardiles, a World Cup-winner for the Albiceleste and a Tottenham Hotspur legend, has sarcastically described the Argentina World Cup brigade as a team of “Messi and 10 more”. Both Diego Maradona and Mario Kempes have expressed concern over the team’s over-reliance on Messi. But the skipper’s teammates don’t mind. They rather revel in it.
“We got accustomed to throwing a big weight on Messi’s shoulders, all the responsibility on him,” midfielder Lucas Biglia told Fox Sports Argentina. Argentina teetered on the precipice in the CONMEBOL qualifying, eventually finishing third. They suffered home defeats against Ecuador and Paraguay and were hammered 3-0 in Brazil. Sampaoli was their third managerial appointment during the qualification campaign after Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza fell through the trapdoor. The two-time champions had been on the verge of missing the World Cup.
Messi’s injury layoff during the qualification rounds had made Argentina ordinary. The captain returned to score a hat-trick and restore normality in the final qualifier against Ecuador. It further attested the team’s over-dependence on the ‘little-big’ man. Argentina will play their first match in the World Cup against Iceland on June 16 and it’s still unclear who would occupy the key positions on the pitch. Mind you, the squad boasts of the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala upfront. But Argentina refuse to thrive on collective brilliance. They are far more comfortable in relying on their sole X-factor.
For one of the most decorated footballers in the history of the game, a World Cup winner’s medal remains the only missing piece in Messi’s trophy cabinet. He has won the Ballon d’Or five times. He has annexed 32 trophies with Barcelona, including a domestic double this term. But at 30 years of age, the wizard from Rosario is desperate to win a World Cup.
“It’s a nice responsibility to represent a whole country at a World Cup. I would swap a title with Barcelona for one with the national team. While I want to win things again with my club, I want to win something with the national team. I know it would be special for what it means; to be champions with Argentina would be different to everything. It would be something unique,” Messi recently told Argentine television network El Trece.
He came so close to winning it at Maracana four years ago. Argentina were basically done in by a Higuain howler against Germany in the final. Russia is probably Messi’s last chance saloon. If he fails, the great man might hang up his international boots.
He had called it quits following Argentina’s Copa America final defeat to Chile two years ago. But Messi quickly reversed his decision. “A lot of things went through my mind on the night of the final and I gave (a) serious thought to quitting. But my love for my country and this shirt is too great. I see there are many problems in Argentine football and I don’t intend to create another one,” he was quoted as saying. Now, he has said he would “give up” international football if Argentina fail to win the World Cup in Russia. The decision this time could be irreversible.
Maybe the desire overdrive is prompting Messi to reportedly intrude into the coach’s territory. But Sampaoli has hardly complained. In fact, three months back, he had spoken about how Argentina would be “Messi’s team” in the World Cup. “This is going to be his team. He is the best of all and is in a stage of maturity that can he can carry the team on his shoulders. This is going to be his team,” Sampaoli had said.
A knee injury has ruled Sergio Romero out of the World Cup. Winning a World Cup with Willy Caballero in goal and Nicolas Otamendi (notwithstanding his improvement under Pep Guardiola) anchoring the rearguard appears wishful. But Messi’s genius can make up for the shortcomings, a la Maradona’s sorcery in Mexico 32 years previously.