Can Lionel Messi win the World Cup for Argentina? – The Indian Express

From the dazzling light of the fireworks that spread over Rio de Janeiro’s iconic football theatre Maracana, Lionel Messi walked into the darkness of the dressing room. His head sunk, one hand wiping sweat and tears, and from the other hung the Golden Ball trophy. This was how the 2014 FIFA World Cup had ended for Messi. He had won the award for the tournament’s best player but it was Germany that took home the Big Cup.
Among the heart-broken and tired faces that gazed sympathetically at him near the change room, Messi found Alfredo Pernas, his closest friend among the group of strategists. He tossed the trophy to Pernas and told him to do whatever he wants with it. Messi would slink into a corner of the change room and weep like a child.
“He just flung the Golden Ball at me and told me to do whatever I want with it. It was not what he wanted,” Pernas would later tell Canal 24. Pernas took it home and preserved it. “He has never asked me about it again, but who knows he might ask me some day. You cannot shove it into the dustbin,” he would add.
Messi would later say, “I do not care about the Golden Ball. That was the worst night of my life.” That night when he reached the closest to holding the World Cup, fulfilling his dream and destiny. But like being woken up from your sweetest dream and thrust into your worst nightmare, that night when Germany beat Argentina in the final, eight years ago, remains an unhealed wound.
He has never rewatched the match, even when an interviewer of once showed him the footage. He turned his eyes away from the television, stared hollowly into the distance and told him, “I don’t know what to say, it’s a pity. I think we had the better chances in the game. For the rest of our lives we’ll regret having those chances, and not being able to put them in.”
Last year, after Argentina won the COPA Cup, the symbol of South American football supremacy, at the same venue, beating Brazil no less, he was asked a specific question: Were the ghosts of 2014 exterminated? “No,” he paused, and firmed up his tone: “Never”.
The 2014 loss will live on whether he wins this World Cup or the next. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni would later explain, “A champion footballer like him, who never likes to lose a single game, would never forget the losses. He remembers every single game he has lost, for club and country. I don’t know whether he remembers the wins!”
A win cannot undo a defeat, just as the present cannot change the past. But there dwells hope for the future. There is renewed hope in Argentina that Messi’s last World Cup could perhaps be his destiny-fulfilling one, too. Under Scaloni, Messi has been a liberated force, Argentina has strung together 35 undefeated games, played beautiful, free-flowing football as their fans had yearned for, and built a suitable stage for their finest player to bury the pain of Maracana and leap into absolute footballing immortality.
For Messi, winning the World Cup is not just about winning the World Cup. It has deeper meanings and relevance. It’s not merely about fetching the last piece of silverware into his cabin, or earning the final stamp of greatness, or being an equal to Diego Maradona, but about proving that he is as Argentinian as any Argentinian. Or, perhaps, more Argentinian.
It’s cruel that he’s made to prove his Argentinian-ism every time he pulls on the blue-and-white stripes of the country. But that’s how it has been. He was not Pibe, the boy from the streets. He was not from the two big Argentina clubs, River Plate or Boca Juniors. He has not played for any club in his country.
His game was moulded in La Masia Academy and not in the alleys of Buenos Aires. He was unemotional on the field, not anarchic. His rendition of the national anthem is soft; he has won everything for Barcelona, but none for Argentina, before the COPA triumph last year.
For a deeply emotional country, there was an irrepressible disconnect and distrust with Messi, even though they loved him and he loved them back. He is aloof, distant, and not them. Maradona was, for his vices and virtues, a true representation of his country.
Messi is aware of the complexities. He has been asked numerous times of his real affiliations: Spain or Argentina? Messi has defended his roots, his loyalty, his heart. Once he recounted an incident: “I was offered to play for Spain when I was 15, I refused. After Spain won the World Cup, a friend in Barcelona joked, ‘If you had accepted the offer, you would have been a World Cup winner.’ I told him, ‘Winning with Spain is not the same as winning with Argentina.’”
There are shades and shadows of Argentina between his words, tones and accent, too. He left his hometown Rosario when he was 13 and spent most of his teenage and adult life in Barcelona, yet his Spanish is sparklingly Argentinian. To defend his commitment, his heart and soul, for the country, he even had to write a column in the newspaper, The Patriot. He launches a teary self-defence: “People ask me why I have not picked up the Spanish accent and it is simple: I do not want to pick it up, or to lose any identification with my country. These are the only colours I want to wear.”
His former coach Jorge Sampaoli would sympathise: “The World Cup is like a revolver to his head.”
But never perhaps has the revolver been the farthest from his head than it is now. For he is no longer Barcelona’s. Just Argentina’s. Though he plays for the French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the affiliations are not as strong. There is no envy, no unwanted comparison, no doubts or debates of his commitment. There is no distraction — if Messi seemed disenchanted last year in Paris, he has been reinvigorated this season, netting 12 goals and 14 assists in 18 games for PSG.
Perhaps, it’s an illusion, perhaps it is real, perhaps it is neither real nor illusory, but Messi has seldom worn his passion as wildly as he has when playing for his country than in the last two years. Usually shy and mild, he has been animated and confrontational, picking fights with opponents, arguing with the referees and celebrating moments maniacally. He has never mocked his opponents.
He did when Colombia’s Yerry Mina missed a penalty during the quarterfinals shootout in COPA. He charged down the halfway line and yelled at the goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to dance, in the exact way Mina had danced during victory in the previous round. Messi, undeniably, was always passionate about playing for his country.
But seldom has that passion manifested this passionately. It could be a trick of the eyes, because when he wears the blue-and-white stripes of Argentina, you don’t see an invisible purple and red underneath, as it always had seemed to exist. It’s pure blue and white.
The jersey no longer seems to burden him, neither does the national team appear to be a gilded prison. Since Scaloni took over the reins of the team in 2018, both Messi and his country have finally found a method to harness the best out of each other. In the last four years. Argentina ended their long COPA America drought, hammered European champions Italy in the Cup of Champions and are unbeaten in the last 35 games. He has scored 25 times and assisted nine times in 36 games. That is nearly one-third of his goals for the country (90 from 164) has been scored in these games.
Scaloni, who was elevated from part-time to full-time manager because he was unglamorous and his fees not exorbitant, has managed what many of his more famous predecessors, from Jose Pekerman to Jose Sampaoli, could not. To get the best out of Messi, Scaloni realised that it was important to get the best out of his teammates, too. Rather than tuning their tactics to suit Messi, he was more eager on formulating a method that worked for the entire group. “It would be difficult for many to adapt to Messi’s style of play, but Messi could adjust to anything (plan).”
In his staggering career, Messi has donned several roles with aplomb, and excelled in each. From right winger to false nine, to centre forward to deep-lying playmaker, there have been few roles he has left untried. His Argentina and Barcelona colleague Javier Mascherano would joke: “Make him a central defender, he would be the best in the world.”
Scaloni, though, was initially inclined to a direct and vertical game, but soon changed to a possession-based game due to a dearth of quality wingers. His midfield is typically narrow, but the midfielders, especially the versatile Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo de Paul, are blessed with sublime passing range.
Messi has starred in a variety of roles, but usually he starts as second striker in a 4-2-3-1 or a centre forward in 4-3-3. But whatever his position is, he usually drifts to the right to receive and create from outside of their opponent’s defensive block. The progressive passing ability of Scaloni’s men, or Scaloneta as they are called, is sumptuous.
Even the central defensive pair of Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez are blessed with the eye for a defence-splitting, attack-initiating pass and ball player. It has helped Scaloni that some of the un-droppables who made Argentina top-heavy are retired, like Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.

Scaloni picks his men carefully, too. Among a raft of conventional strikers playing in Europe, Scaloni chose Lautaro Martinez, whose chief task is to draw defenders out of their position, dishevel the defensive shape with clever runs beyond the defence-line and create space for Messi and Co. to manoeuvre.
Though Argentina is not much of a pressing side, they storm the final third. In a normal game sequence, Messi has at least four colleagues including the full-backs beside him. So, he has the freedom to move into empty spaces or drift wide, or drop deep with quick passing exchanges. Maybe, it’s this freedom, the elevation of quality around him, that has made the gifts of Messi shine brighter than ever before in the robes of his country and made his only unfulfilled dream on a football field look closer to fulfillment than ever before.
But Messi warns: “The World Cup is very difficult, many things have to happen (to win it), and there are many teams that want the same as us and that are doing well.” He then allays the fears: “We are eager, we are going to fight, we are not afraid of anyone because we are ready to play against anyone, but with peace of mind.”
There was an unusual rage in his voice when he uttered those words in a press conference last month. Not desperation but a burning desire to consummate his last shot at fulfilling his destiny, the last attempt at winning the only trophy that has eluded him, and, predominantly, the last leap towards proving that he is more Argentinian than any Argentinian.
The pain of Maracana might live on eternally, but the joy of Doha could make the memories of that night a little bit more bearable.
27 Messi has netted 27 goals in 43 games this calendar year
25 Under manager Lionel Scaloni, Messi has scored 25 times in 36 games
3 If Messi manages to assist three more goals, he would break Maradona’s record of most assists in World Cups (8)
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