There’ll be immense pressure on the little genius

More than looking at the World Cup as a chance to put the debate of ‘the best’ to bed, Lionel Messi will be keen on making amends. He’s been part of a team that’s lost a major final for three straight years — one World Cup and two Copa Americas — and he needs to make that right along with his team.

In prime form: Argentina’s Lionel Messi during a training session at Tomas Adolfo Duco Stadium in Buenos Aires. Coach Jorge Sampaoli recently stuck his neck out in saying that football owes Lionel Messi a World Cup.   -  Getty Images

The moment Argentina booked its ticket to Russia 2018 on the final day of qualifying games, coach Jorge Sampaoli stuck his neck out in saying that football owes Lionel Messi a World Cup. If you’re a Messi fan, you’re going to nod at the thought without questioning the weight of that statement. If you’re a neutral, I’d expect you to mildly raise an eyebrow and debate the thought. I’m safely assuming there are no Messi haters, which is why I won’t even get to what they would have thought about it. As for me, I’m still not sure how to feel about what Sampaoli does.

Last shot for Messi and the rest?

Whether football owes Messi a World Cup or not, the pressure on the little genius is going to swell to its maximum when Argentina kicks off its campaign on June 15. I say maximum because, as much as he is in the prime of his form, Messi is 30 now and so much changes in a year, let alone four. I’d like to believe he will be around for Qatar 2022, but it is Russia 2018 that is going to be his best, if not his last, chance to lay his hands on the most coveted trophy of them all. And joining Messi on that list are names like Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria and Javier Mascherano among a few others who have all been fantastic servants of the game and will be eyeing redemption with a lot of longing.

It’s tough to be Messi but the man keeps making it look so easy that you begin taking him and what he does for granted. However, the debate of whether he’s the greatest the sport has ever seen forever remains unsettled by the fact that he hasn’t won the World Cup. The question then is, does Messi have to win the Cup to prove the point? He can’t win the Cup alone. So, is Argentina winning it or not a fair measure of the man’s greatness? If he fails to win it in his career, will he always remain in Diego Maradona’s shadow? Questions and more questions!

Far from easy

For starters, it is going to be tough for Argentina from the word go. It’s placed in Group D alongside Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland and none of those teams are ones that can be discounted even for a minute. Games aren’t won on team sheets, but one look at Croatia’s and you would do well to consider it a serious threat to finish on top of the group. Then there’s Iceland, which has had a meteoric rise since the European championships and looks very good to keep that going. Finally, there’s the Super Eagles in Nigeria, which blow hot and cold, but when they blow hot, they do it with no half measures.

Argentina’s qualification to the World Cup was left late and it needed a hat-trick from Messi to seal it in the game against Ecuador. And it would be safe to say it’s going to need its talisman to take off from where he left if the side is to think of a spot in the round of 16.

Redemption time

More than looking at this as a chance to put the debate of ‘the best’ to bed, Messi will be keen on making amends. He’s been part of a team that’s lost a major final for three straight years — one World Cup and two Copa Americas — and he needs to make that right along with his team. Messi and club football is a love story for the ages. Messi and the national team not so much. It’s really tough for a player to carry a team through a tournament alone. But it’s not impossible for a player to carry a team through a final alone and that’s where Messi will feel he’s missed a trick three years in a row. Failure propels genius to do better and the stage is set perfectly for Messi and his teammates.

Did Maradona have it easier?

I find comparisons between sportsmen from different eras very unfair. So much changes every passing year and there are so many factors that surround the way things shape out at the end of a season and a tournament. But, I recently read an article where Claudio Cannigia, Maradona’s teammate, came out saying that the World Cup-winning No. 10 had it easier than Messi. The long-haired and temperamental Cannigia went on to say that Messi doesn’t receive as much support from his teammates in the national team as Maradona did.

Whether that’s true or not, one thing is for certain — Messi won’t be able to do this alone. It’s going to take everyone wearing that famous blue-and-white striped kit to push and pull in the same direction. There will be days and games where they will fall miserably short. But on those days, expect the little genius to run the show alone. A World Cup will be a fitting tribute to an extraordinary talent. Whether he gets to lift it will be completely down to him and his men.