Football

Lionel Messi: Inside Argentina captain’s quest for World Cup 2022 glory

ลิโอเนล เมสซี: Inside Argentina captain’s quest for World Cup 2022 glory

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For almost two minutes around the 70-minute mark in Tuesday’s semi-final against Croatia, a barely mobile ลิโอเนล เมสซี stood on the side of the halfway line waiting for the ball.

Finally receiving it, he started running alongside centre-back Josko Gvardiol, getting closer to the edge of the box, before looking back and realising the 20-year-old defender was catching him.

As he neared the byeline, Messi turned and looked like he was going back, before turning again, accelerating and gaining those crucial metres that left Gvardiol in his wake. The cross to Julian Alvarez was with his right foot and the centre-forward became the beneficiary of another stroke of Messi genius to confirm Argentina’s place in Sunday’s World Cup final against France.

Making constant, correct choices is one of the key reasons Messi’s career has reached heights nobody has ever got to – and why he rests so much during matches now.

At 35, he is, more than ever, a player of moments in a World Cup of moments. A man for the occasion.

As he orchestrated the Argentina fans from the centre of the pitch – just like he conducts play on it – you knew the size of the moment. The player who has won almost everything now has one last shot at the biggest prize of all.

The ‘new’ Messi

“What are you looking at, bobo (stupid boy)? What are you looking at, bobo? Go away, bobo.”

Messi’s words after Argentina’s dramatic and ill-tempered penalty shootout win over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals were directed at Dutch substitute Wout Weghorst, the striker who came off the bench and scored the two goals that earned extra time for Louis van Gaal’s men.

“Ever since he came on, their number 19 was provoking us, bumping into us, and saying things – and, it seems to me, this is not part of football. I always respect everyone, but I like that they respect me too. Nor was their coach respectful towards us,” Messi explained after the match.

It is not what we have come to expect from the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.

‘Bobo’ is an old word often used by children at school. The same word Messi would almost certainly have used at the age of 12, just before leaving South America to be wrapped in another world in Europe, in Barcelona.

What we are seeing is not a new Messi, but the rebirth of the teenager who left Rosario. It all started to come out again in 2019.

The arrival of a communicative and humble coach like Lionel Scaloni, after the disappointment of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, brought with it one main idea: to create the perfect environment for Messi. This involved the development of a group of young players, under the clear leadership of the captain they admire.

Amid the uncertainty around his future at Barcelona, the national team offered Messi protection, solace and a group of friends when he needed them most.

Calls to join the Argentina squad’s training camps became as necessary as they were gratifying. There were barbecues, a recognisable sense of humour, lots of mate – the traditional South American caffeine-rich infused drink. Concepts like revenge, battle, team unity, to win no matter how dominated conversations. It was home.

In the quarter-finals of the 2019 Copa America against Venezuela, there were the first indications something new was happening as Messi sang the national anthem for the first time, as he has done ever since.

In the semi-final, Argentina lost to Brazil in Belo Horizonte, and they believed Brazil’s then-president Jair Bolsonaro had used the competition to play politics – walking across the pitch at half-time with the fans yelling ‘mito, mito (legend, legend)’.

Argentina, despite being the better side, were left furious about two possible penalty shouts, on which they believed the video assistant referee should have intervened in their favour.

Messi went out to the mixed zone to say: “I hope Conmebol does something with this type of refereeing. I don’t think they will do anything because Brazil controls everything”.

His words would lead to him being banned for three months by South American football’s governing body. In the following match – the third-place play-off against Chile – Messi was sent off for “confronting an opponent”, his second red card in 14 years with the national team.

Maybe Netherlands boss Van Gaal had not heard Messi was beginning to show another side. Or perhaps he had and for that reason was looking for ways to provoke him. Maybe that is why he accused him of not turning up when it mattered most in important games, of losing interest when dispossessed.

It did not pass Messi by and we saw all sides of his personality in the World Cup quarter-final in Qatar.

He celebrated putting Argentina 2-0 up from the penalty spot by running towards the Dutch bench. He stopped with his hands to his ears, evoking the image of puppet mouse Topo Gigio, the celebration of former Argentina midfielder Joan Roman Riquelme.

This was meant as a reminder to Van Gaal for the shabby way he believed the Dutchman had treated his friend while both were at Barcelona. Messi then approached both him and assistant Edgar Davids to tell them they had been speaking too much.

With those gestures, Messi was championing the creativity associated with Riquelme over European order and discipline. He was defending football born in the street against that which is coached.

It was a quarter-final in which Messi did not fight to control emotions, but ran with them. It was a battle.

In Catalonia, where shows of high emotions are viewed somewhat disparagingly, Messi was generally quiet and focused on his work. His legend was created from the bricks and mortar of football, building his reputation with what he did rather than by what he said. But Leo – this Leo – was always there. He was, after all, born in Rosario, Argentina.

Right ecosystem for the Argentine leader

Scaloni’s group of mostly young players sees only one possible leader: Messi.

Argentina World Cup winner Jorge Valdano told the Guardian: “When he walks into the dining room everyone looks at him – players, staff, chefs, kitmen, the lot. And that’s people who know him… [they] have to know how to live with a genius. For a long time, this Argentina team didn’t; now they’ve learned. The idea that everyone’s the same isn’t true.”

The walls of the national side’s dressing room carry memories of how to lead.

Messi is now the embodiment of Mario Kempes, Ricardo Bochini, Daniel Passarela, Diego Maradona, Oscar Ruggeri, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron – players who knew the game was won not just on the pitch, but also with how you spoke to your team-mates, the referee, the rivals.

Messi has decided to embrace that role, it feels natural now.

Those who leave their homeland sometimes forget what fired them up as kids – but when they remember, the emotion is intense. It is the process Messi has gone through.

Surrounded for 30 days by young players who were like him as a child – challenging, aggressive, competitive footballers who know what it is to suffer on the pitch, looked after by the streetwise team joker Rodrigo de Paul – he has found his place in the world.

Valdano hits the nail on the head again: “I feel like Argentina have found the right ecosystem. I saw a photo that looked like Ocean’s Eleven: the players getting off the bus – Messi at the head, the rest behind him, flanking him in a triangle.”

Messi feels like he is in the school yard with friends

“The truth is that it is a very powerful group, very strong,” Messi said after the semi-final. “We said it when we lost our first game – which none of us expected – that we had trust in ourselves, because we know what we have in this group.”

Much as Diego Maradona’s World Cup winners did back in 1986, this Argentina squad has conjured up the necessary team spirit around a barbecue.

They brought to the University of Qatar four large grills and a stove, and space was created to hang entire pieces of meat. According to El Pais, they had about 2,600kg of meat for the whole tournament. An ‘asado’ in Argentina is not a meal so much as it is almost a religious ceremony. That is where everything is conjured.

Argentina and the World Cups

An estimated 40,000 fans from Argentina have made the trip to Qatar, with the stands in every game awash with blue-and-white shirts.

After the shock opening defeat by Saudi Arabia, every game has been like an amassing of mini World Cup trophies on their way to the main prize.

The World Cup in Argentina is everything; football is everything. Everything revolves around this sport, because that is the best possible way to show the world Argentina is special.

There was a time, in the 1970s, when it was understood that Japan and Argentina would join the richest and most powerful countries in the world.

Since then, Argentines say there are four types of countries: developed, underdeveloped, Japan and their country. Japan because with nothing they did everything, and Argentina because with everything they did nothing. They lost that train.

Now, the lack of confidence in the finances of the country – huge inflation, more than half of the country considered poor – in the politicians, in the system, has divided people who live in two extremes, unable to find common ground.

Football is still the only thing that unites them, as was seen in the celebrations in the centre of Buenos Aires, and all over the nation.

That demand that accentuates the tension when a footballer wears the blue-and-white shirt. For them, the only thing worth anything is victory. That is the pressure Messi carries.

The enjoyment of the now

“It is not easy to go out on the field knowing that you have to win, because if you don’t you’re out. And we have been doing this since the second game,” Messi explained after the Croatia match. “That is mentally very wearing and this group has known how to overcome that. We played five finals and one more remains.”

Messi has a new frame of mind. In the past, he did not allow himself to enjoy too much. The priority was the next game. It was that need to go for more that took him to such heights.

Now, freed of the pressure since Argentina won the 2021 Copa America, he has become aware that the end is nigh and has allowed himself to be carried away by what is around him.

He is embracing all that the World Cup means, including being tied to an invisible thread that links him to Maradona. He has been seen singing with the fans at the end of the matches. Especially ‘Muchachos’, where Maradona encourages Messi from heaven.

“I was born in Argentina, land of Diego and Lionel, of the kids from Malvinas, which I will never forget. I can’t explain it to you, because you won’t understand, the finals we lost, how many years I cried for them. But that’s over, because at the Maracana, the final against the Brazucas was won again [reference to the last Copa America final won by Argentina]. Guys, now we’re excited again. I want to win the third; I want to be world champion. And we can see Diego, in heaven, with Don Diego and La Tota, encouraging Lionel.”

The day after reaching the semi-finals, Messi spent the day with his wife, Antonela, and their three children at the University of Qatar facilities. He worked a little in the gym and put himself in the hands of the physiotherapists.

During the following days, he trained without pushing himself too far and spent the afternoons playing the card game ‘truco’ with his team-mates – which was as competitive as you would expect it to be.

After beating Croatia, he spent more time with his family. Taking advantage of two days off helped him back to earth after the emotions of reaching the sixth senior final of his career with the national team.

The future – a World Cup at 39?

“I feel a lot of happiness, obviously, to be able to finish my career in the World Cup playing my last game in a final,” Messi said after the semi-final win over Croatia.

“There are many years until the next one and I don’t think I will be able to make it there. And well, ending this way is just amazing.”

Messi is now Argentina’s all-time top goalscorer in World Cups, and his fifth tournament is his best. He’s top of the goals and assists charts, and has dribbled and created more chances than anyone else.

Now in his second final, he will beat German Lothar Matthaus’ tournament appearance record when he plays his 26th and last World Cup match against France on Sunday (15:00 GMT).

Scaloni has designed a team that works to Messi’s strengths. He needs to ‘plant a tent’ around the box. He wants to be influencing the last decisions of a move, but still scoring like a striker. Everyone adapts around him.

He needs his team to be compact, not doing box-to-box runs that involve him having to cover too much ground. He knows his limits and that is why he could last 100 minutes on the day of his 1,000th game, against Australia, and about 131 minutes against the Netherlands.

What next? As it stands, he might accept the new offer from Paris St-Germain that could keep him at the club until 2025. There is a Copa America in 2024, and maybe Inter Miami will open the doors to him for a couple of years.

The plan for Scaloni and the federation is to let him decide, but they would like him to continue until the Copa America, in the meantime choosing the games he plays in – with the hope being that, at 39, he can still be convinced to be Argentina’s captain at the next World Cup.

The players will ask him to go on too. Neither they – nor we – are ready to see the last of his kind leave, especially now it is a sport where space to create is reduced, and players like Messi are not allowed to exist.

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