Brilliant, amazing, magical. Superlatives seem to have long since run out in attempts to describe Lionel Messi over the past 18 years.
The 7-time Ballon d’Or winner has already achieved countless things that his colleagues can only dream of, but one trophy continues to elude him.
And this is the trophy of which his enemies do not fail to gloatingly remind him.
Because the debate about who is the greatest football player in history inevitably goes through the world cup, and it is not yet present in the showcase of the Argentine genius.
For most of his career, Messi suffered disappointment after disappointment with Argentina. At the 2010 World Cup, he got to watch several of his Barcelona teammates triumph with a first world title for Spain, while Leo himself only reached the quarter-finals.
4 years later, Messi came closest to the goal, but a miss by Gonzalo Higuain and a strike by Mario Gotze in the 113th minute of the final match decided everything. And the tournament again ended in heartbreak for the Argentine, although he became the No. 1 player in the championship.
The World Cup in Russia in 2018 also did not bring joy to Argentina. Kylian Mbappe was already becoming a superstar when he punished the “gauchos” with two goals in the round of 16, and then became a world champion.
Messi was once again left empty-handed and already had to get used to the fact that he might never step on the world’s top with his national team.
But here comes the last chance in his amazing career. Now 35, Leo has confirmed that the World Championships in Qatar will be his last – and that he can’t help but feel excited and nervous about the challenge.
“I don’t think I’ll play much longer,” he admitted in a recent interview.
The famous playmaker has long set such standards that he can only be compared with the greatest. But comparisons to Diego Maradona and Pele always lead to their great World Cup moments, while Messi’s World Cup story remains one of pain and dashed hopes.
Leo got to play in some confused times for the Argentine national team.
While always having plenty of talent on the pitch, Argentina could never find the balance in their line-up and usually the plan boiled down to giving the ball to the big star and everyone crossing their fingers that he would come up with something with it.
At last, however, the “gauchos” look like a complete team, and not just like “Messi and company”. The leader is already much more adequately integrated into the team, not only tactically, but even emotionally.
His quiet and withdrawn character seemed to have a somewhat depressing effect on those around him, while now he is more vocal, more confident in his role as captain and has a real team around him.
Before the start of the championship in Qatar, it seems that, at 35 years old, Lionel Messi is getting his best chance to realize the dream of all Argentina and lift the missing cup.
Much of the credit for this goes to his namesake Lionel Scaloni, who was not given high hopes when he took over from Jorge Sampaoli.
The move came after the disappointment of the 2018 World Cup and the idea was that Scaloni would only be a temporary option. The former midfielder’s coaching experience then ended with a few years as Sampaoli’s assistant.
However, Scalloni proved to be the right man to lead the team on an incredible run, win the 2021 Copa America and arrive in Qatar as one of the main favorites for the cup.
Last year’s Copa America triumph was Argentina’s first for 28 years and it was achieved against arch-rivals Brazil on Brazilian soil – enough to secure Scaloni a glorious place in Argentine football history.
But what was achieved then was not just fireworks. The Argentine side continued their rise with style, consistency and maturity on the pitch, and a smooth qualifying campaign for Qatar was capped by a 36-match unbeaten run.
Barring a shock performance in their World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia, Argentina will equal Italy’s record 37-game unbeaten run.
This is not the familiar unstable Argentina, ready to crack at the most inopportune moment. Now, the squad may not have the plethora of superstars of the past, but it has the backbone of Emiliano Martinez, Cristian Romero, Rodrigo De Paul and Lautaro Martinez to take on even the toughest of opponents.
Therefore, Scaloni’s Argentina are no longer so desperately dependent on Leo Messi. The “gauchos” are more pragmatic, more efficient and combative than before, which Scaloni himself speaks about.
“Today, there is no team that dominates for 70-80% of a game. There are moments when you go back, you work, you feel that you are in a difficult period. The good thing about this team is that it knows how to suffer,” he explains the breeder.
Already during the 2019 edition of the Copa America, the style of this team began to clarify.
Scalloni relies on patient control in midfield, where Leandro Paredes, De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso move the ball in a triangle – only to bring Messi into the game when the star is close to the opposition goal.
The big teams are full of perfectly working partnerships like the one between the three midfielders and Messi, as well as between Messi, Lautaro and Di Maria.
The numerous passes of the Argentines tire the opponent and gradually open more and more spaces where Leo and the others can run wild.
Perhaps even more importantly for this Argentina, the defensive performance is not just good, but downright sensational.
Scaloni’s squad has had its door locked since the middle of last year, when Aston Villa guard Emiliano Martinez was handed a starting spot, ahead of Tottenham defender Christian Romero.
It’s been a long time since Argentina had such a goalkeeper and such a central defender at the same time, who were so important to the team. The result is just two goals conceded in the last 15 games.
The problem is that Romero has been injured and has missed Tottenham’s last 5 matches, but he has resumed training just in time for the World Cup – and is expected to play a leading role under Scaloni, although he did not feature in the last control before the tournament (5-0 over the UAE).
The prerequisites are there for all of Argentina to look forward to the World Cup. This is a team that knows how to win and that has a star in superb form.
After a lackluster first season at Paris Saint-Germain, Messi has been unstoppable again and has returned to his best days with 12 goals and 13 assists in 17 games this campaign.
Therefore, the optimism surrounding the “gauchos” seems largely justified.
Of course, it will take something special for Argentina to claim a first world title since 1986 – but with Messi on the pitch and with these results of late, the necessary spark is there.
And if Leo lifts this cup over his head as well, his status as #1 in history will be hard to dispute.