Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais really didn’t stand a chance against Lionel Messi once Argentina were awarded a penalty in just the 7th minute of play. He dived the wrong way – a quick little clever stop just before kicking the ball and Messi sent the ball in the other direction. Can’t blame the keeper. He was staring at a player who is undoubtedly one of the best ever. Messi celebrated with his teammates – a big smile on his face.
But then the story changed drastically – After the final whistle, Messi wore a forlorn look to say the least. Shoulders slumped, a familiar scowl on his face, the walk back to the tunnel slow and laboured. It was almost as if he could visualise the World Cup trophy slipping away – yet again. Argentina had been handed one of the biggest shock losses in the history of the tournament. Played – 1, Lost – 1.
(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Think of Lionel Messi and you will think of two things – one of the best footballers of all time, and also a superstar who is yet to win a World Cup.
With Barcelona FC, Messi has won it all. With Argentina too he has a Copa America title. But the biggest prize of them continues to elude him. And that in itself is a lonely place to be in.
All comparisons between him with his illustrious predecessor and compatriot Diego Armando Maradona end with the same statement – ‘Maradona won a World Cup, Messi hasn’t’.
The ongoing World Cup in Qatar is still in its nascent stages and yet there have already been so many talking points and also controversies that it’s becoming hard to keep track of it all. And one of the biggest talking points has once again been – Can Messi finally get his hands on the World Cup trophy in what is almost definitely his last outing on the world stage? If he does it will also take him ahead of the other man of this generation who will comfortably find a place among the all-time greats – Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal has never won the World Cup and realistically they are unlikely to, for a while at least. Not too many people expect Ronaldo to take Portugal to the title. Things are very different for Lionel Messi.
Can Messi win the World Cup? If there’s a sense of deja vu that you feel when you hear this oft-repeated question, don’t blame yourself. It’s a question that has been asked since his first appearance in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
There are two different reasons perhaps for this – 1. Messi is arguably one of the best footballers of all time, but without a World Cup medal his legacy is just not complete. Imagine if Maradona had not taken Argentina to the 1986 title. How different would his legacy be? There was a very palpable sense of heartbreak when Argentina fell 0-1 at the final hurdle in the 1990 final against West Germany. Andreas Brehme didn’t just take the West Germans to the World Cup title with his goal in the final, he effectively ensured that Maradona would have only one World Cup title on his resume. And that interlinks with the second reason – 2. It has just been too long since the Albiceleste last won the World Cup – 36 years to be exact.
But is it fair to expect one man to carry the expectations of an entire nation? Well, it might not be fair, but it has happened so many times before in the sporting arena – just ask Sachin Tendulkar. And that’s when the job becomes not just a very tough one, but also a very lonely one. The squads change, the coaches change, the venues change, but the pressure of expectations only builds. Indian cricket fans know well enough how important the 2011 ODI World Cup trophy was for Sachin Tendulkar. The entire team wanted to win the title for him. It’s the same with the Argentina squads that have played the last couple of editions of the FIFA World Cup – they want to win it for Messi. But the wait still continues.
The wait almost ended in 2014 in Brazil, when Messi was within sniffing distance of the trophy. But standing in Argentina’s way in the final hurdle were the Germans – And the Albiceleste faltered, going down 1-0 after extra time. Messi was given the Golden Ball, but it almost felt like a consolation prize. After all, the Golden Ball is no World Cup trophy. The look on Messi’s face after that final was not too different from the one he wore after the loss to Saudi Arabia last Tuesday. He held the award for the Player of the Tournament in his hands, but his face wore an extremely sad look. He was not just sad though, he was lonely.
(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
After a forgettable outing in Russia last time, Messi is back on the world stage, once again as captain of the Argentine team aiming to end a 36 year wait. Argentina went into this edition of the World Cup with form under their belt. After winning a record equalling 15th Copa America – their first major title in 28 years, Messi magic took the Blue and Sky White shirts to the Finalissima title earlier this year, with a 3-0 win vs European champions Italy in the final.
The buzz was that Lionel Scaloni, the 44 year old former Argentina wing-back has managed to bring the team together and make it click as a unit. They were riding high on a three year, 36 match unbeaten streak.
And then it ended. What no one, maybe not even the Saudi Arabians and their fans perhaps, was expecting was to see the two time champions go down in their first outing itself and that too against the lowest ranked team in their group.
Let’s face it, the Saudis played some phenomenal football, especially in the first half. Let’s not forget that the only goal Argentina scored in that match was off a penalty, whereas both of Saudi Arabia’s goals were stunning field goals. The goal-keeper who conceded the penalty goal to Messi subsequently pulled off some great saves to deny the white and sky blue shirts any further inroads to ensure the Saudis held on to their slender one goal lead. They deserved to win that match. Let’s also not forget that Argentina had as many as three goals overturned due to off-side play in that match.
In the middle of all of this – spare a thought for Messi. Here’s someone who is always expected to take Argentina to the title. But football is a team sport and Messi magic alone is not enough at the World Cup. We have seen that over so many editions now. And that is also what makes Maradona so special. He took Argentina to the title in 1986 – playing every single minute of all their matches and scoring 5 goals and providing 5 assists in the process. He was of course adjudged the Golden Ball winner for the best player of the tournament, though Gary Lineker pipped him to the highest goal-scorer award, with 6 goals. And then Maradona almost single-handedly took Argentina to the final in the next edition in 1990 in Italy. But somehow, as things stand, a feat like that looks like a mountain that might just be too high to climb for Messi.
Messi’s own awards and accolades list is a stunning one. He has really won it all, except of course the World Cup. And at 35, playing in his 5th World Cup, the little magician is finding himself once again in a very lonely corner.
In all the previous four editions when Messi couldn’t get his hands on the trophy, he could go back to the comfort of the club that gave him everything and made him the superstar that he is – Barcelona. This time, that comforting embrace is missing as well.
Of course the World Cup campaign in Qatar is far from over for Argentina and they could affect a dramatic turnaround in fortunes, but Messi knows that if things don’t fall into place this time, there won’t possibly be a next time.
Up next for Argentina is an injury-ravaged Mexico on Sunday (November 27). The Mexicans are also coming off a disappointing outing – a 0-0 draw vs Poland. It could very well have been 1-0 to the Polish, but for a stunning save by Guillermo Ochoa.
Neither team can afford a misstep. And yet the stakes are just so much higher for Argentina and Messi.
1978 – Daniel Passarella, 1986 – Diego Maradona, 2022 – ?
Can Lionel Messi add his name to that list or will he continue to remain in that very lonely corner?