Having dragged Argentina almost single-handedly to Russia, Lionel Messi is gearing up for another crack at international honours with La Albiceleste. The Barcelona star’s presence alone puts Argentina among many people’s favourites for the World Cup but for those that watched the stumbling qualification process that looks like a long shot.
Messi will carry the burden of a nation after losing to Germany in the final four years ago and despite Argentina’s problems it could be a last chance to lift the trophy that for many would cement his place as the greatest of all-time.
Chopping and changing during qualification took its toll, Jorge Sampaoli is yet to find his ideal starting eleven and there remain big decisions to make regarding the squad but while Messi doesn’t necessarily think Argentina must lift the famous trophy in Moscow, La Albiceleste must be contenders.
“A good World Cup, would be to in the last four, to be one of the best four. The least Argentina deserves is to be there because of its history,” Messi explained to TyC Sports.
“It took a great deal for us just to reach this moment, but I think we have to be there again.”
That same history that Messi speaks of brings with it expectation and the Argentinian public will be demanding exactly the same success.
“We don’t have an obligation to anyone.
“We want to win more than anyone after going to three finals and not winning any of them.
“This is a weight that we carry ourselves and want to overcome, a desire of all of us who have been in the national team this last decade.”
Messi knows all too well what it is like to be in the firing line of Argentina’s demanding public and after losing a second consecutive Copa América final, the 30-year-old famously retired from international duty, only to be swiftly persuaded otherwise.
“If we do not win the World Cup, I will continue in the national team,” Messi stated.
“After saying that [retiring after the Copa América] I thought it was not the right thing to do, it would be giving the wrong message to all the youth and all the people who fight for their dreams. Keep trying and keep fighting for what you want.”
Despite lifting every title possible with Barcelona and being awarded the Ballon d’Or on five occasions, for some Messi needs a World Cup winners medal in his cabinet to be considered the greatest of all-time. Russia could be the Argentina captain’s last opportunity, certainly while he is at his peak.
“I’m not interested in being the best of all-time. Every time I start a year I try to improve personally, win everything, leave everything on the pitch every time I go out, give it all for my teammates and for me.
It does not change anything to be the best of all-time.”
“I always want to improve myself and I do not compete with anyone, because I do not play to be the best of all-time but to improve myself year after year and keep winning.
“The more titles you win at the end, the better. And, obviously, winning with the national team would be the best because it was not given to us.”
Whether Jorge Sampaoli is the man to lead Messi and his teammates to this remains to be seen. Argentina have had eight managers since the World Cup in 2006 and certainly the man currently in charge has not had long to implement many of his ideas.
Sampaoli has however appeared to have made an impression with Messi.
“Everything he [Sampaoli] does is done with intensity and he puts everything into training, every day, into his talks and the matches, obviously. Always at his maximum.”
Messi’s desire to reach the semi-finals is a target echoed by AFA president Claudio Tapia but if Argentina can’t go one better than in 2014 who might be the other contenders?
“Brazil arrive in great shape collectively as they gave good players individually but as a group they work very well. They defend well, they have strong players and then they counter with very fast players like Ney [Neymar] or Coutinho.
“Spain, for the players that they have and their way of playing, more attractive than Brazil; Germany, because they are always there and France, because they too have very good players, though they have many young players.”
Given the competition, Messi’s wish to reach at least the semi finals would indeed be a success for Argentina at this stage. La Albiceleste are by far the least settled of the prime candidates in Russia and need plenty of things to click into place over the next month if they are to reach that target.