HERNAN Crespo, the former Argentina striker, has already suggested that if La Albiceleste win the World Cup in Brazil, they will need to ride out of town in a fleet of helicopters to ensure a safe passage back to Buenos Aires, where the mother of all parties will be contrasted by the deepest of all downers across the short border between the countries.
In Brazil, it is simply inconceivable that Argentina will lift the World Cup, in Maracana stadium of all places. It was devastating enough when Uruguay did this in 1950, hopping across yet another border Brazil shares with a neighbour – there are ten in total – to meet their date with destiny in a stadium that was reputedly filled with more than 200,000 spectators. This makes it all the harder for the Brazilians to accept that it was their team who came unstuck in the final.
They still refer to the silence that fell across the stadium, despite the huge number of spectators, when Uruguay’s winning goal went in, scored by Alcides Ghiggia, the last surviving member of the team. Ghiggia is fond of describing himself as one of three people, along with the Pope and Frank Sinatra, who has succeeded in reducing the Maracana to silence. Might Lionel Messi, or another of Argentina’s danger men, be added to the list if Alejandro Sabella’s side meet old foes Brazil in the final – something the majority of neutrals want to see?
A clash between these two South American nations in the spiritual home of Brazilian football has an appealing ring to it.
But first Messi will have to light up the stage in the way that his Barcelona teammate Neymar has already managed when scoring a brace for the host nation against Croatia on Thursday. Messi, who turns 27 during this tournament, has the perfect opportunity to make his own statement this evening against Group F rivals Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the stadium where Argentina hope to conclude their World Cup campaign in style on 13 July.
Three of Messi’s 38 goals so far for his country were scored against Brazil. These formed an exceptional hat-trick in a 4-3 win in 2012. But it was only a friendly fixture, or at least as much of friendly as it is possible for these derby rivals to play, staged in New York. To date, Messi has not scored at the Maracana, although unlike Real Madrid’s preening superstar Ronaldo, personal targets do not seem to consume the striker. Still, he would clearly enjoy rectifying a surprisingly poor World Cup record in such a significant location this evening.
It still seems remarkable that Messi has only scored once at the World Cup, and that was as long ago as 2006, when he was just a teenager. That is just one goal in 571 minutes of football, compared with the almost-goal-a-game record he can boast for Barcelona. But it is not only Messi who is carrying Argentina’s hopes. He will not have to carry his side to glory on his own, in the way Diego Maradona is perceived as having done in 1986. He is only one of a so-called “Fantastic Quartet” completed by Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria. If they are all on song, the hopes are high among the Argentina fans that their team can emerge victorious in Brazil, and claim a third World Cup title.
This, remember, is a team that can afford to leave the Juventus striker Carlos Tevez sitting at home. Higuain, the Napoli striker, is doubtful for tonight’s match, as he continues to suffer from an ankle complaint, but with Manchester City striker Aguero – who is sharing a room with Messi, his closest friend in football – to call upon as well, there is a potential explosiveness to Argentina that exceeds all of their rivals, including Brazil. Winger Di Maria of Real Madrid, the last of the quartet, is also operating while high on confidence as a recent Champions League winner, one of the stars of the show in the victory over Atletico Madrid.
But, in public at least, Argentina are playing down their chances of overall victory and are setting their sights primarily on ending a quarter-final jinx instead. Their last two World Cup adventures have ended at this stage, on both occasions at the hands of Germany, while they failed to progress from the group stage in 2002. Although always regarded as potential champions, they realise that their recent record is poor.
“It’s very difficult to become world champions,” pointed out Sabella last week. “We mustn’t believe we’re the best. In fact, we know we’re not the best, but we are a [world] power. We can’t get involved in triumphalism… We must remain emotionally balanced and the more so when we go out on to the pitch.”
The pressure is on Messi to perform, and while he is sometimes treated in a cool fashion by fans of Argentina because of the close and long-term association he enjoys with his club, there is no question that the striker realises that a World Cup tends to be where great players truly establish themselves. While he is unquestionably already one of them, there are still some who feel Messi still has something to prove on the greatest stage of all. “The games at the World Cup are totally different,” the striker conceded last week. “First of all the atmosphere is not like anything else. While the Champions League is great, the World Cup is special.”
Promisingly, if it is goals you want in a World Cup already laden with them, Manchester City’s Eden Dzeko and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibisevic, who could start in attack together for Bosnia-Herzegovina, managed an impressive haul of 18 goals between them during their country’s qualifying campaign.
Only one attacking combination were more productive – Messi and Higuain – who scored 19 goals between them en route to Brazil, although such is the embarrassment of riches, Sabella is unlikely to restrict himself to playing just two forwards this evening.
• Lionel Messi has not scored a goal at the finals since his World Cup debut in Germany in 2006 when Argentina beat Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 and he netted their sixth as a substitute.
• Sergio Aguero scored both goals when Argentina beat Bosnia 2-0 in a friendly in the US city of St Louis last November in their second meeting.
• Bosnia emerged as an independent nation out of the break-up of Yugoslavia, founded a national football federation in 1992 and joined FIFA in 1996.
• Bosnia coach Safet Susic, pictured, was once a gifted forward who scored 21 goals in 54 internationals for the former Yugoslavia, including a hat-trick in a 4-2 friendly win over Argentina in Belgrade in 1979.
• The teams have met twice with Argentina winning both times.