So, Lionel Messi, what kind of season did you have for your club… you’re not too tired for the World Cup, I hope? Let’s see: in 2017-18 you became the first player to score 350 La Liga goals. You notched your 100th goal in Euro competition, quickly followed by your 100th in the Champions League. You achieved 600 appearances for Barcelona. You broke Gerd Muller’s record for the most goals with one club. You followed that with your 600th Barca goal. You matched Ronaldinho’s record for the most Barca strikes direct from free-kicks in a single campaign. You finally made Gianluigi Buffon fish the ball out of the net, scoring against him for the first time.
But this is Messi we’re talking about. He probably only had to be routinely brilliant to achieve all of that. Barcelona romped the title, and fierce rivals Real Madrid weren’t in the least bit bothersome. The Catalans tumbled out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals, affording Messi some extra rest. And in the Ballon d’Or there was no stress from worrying about his speech and then posing for a million photos because Cristiano Ronaldo, who relishes these duties, won it.
Fatigue was a problem at the last World Cup in Brazil. The little man dragged Argentina into the final, scoring often and sumptuously, but against Germany he ran out of gas. He needed a team-mate to be the hero but Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio contrived horrible misses which must haunt them still. So can Messi, who turns 31 two days before Argentina’s last group game against Nigeria in St Petersburg, do it at last? Can he lead his team to glory and rubber-stamp what many of us believe anyway, that he is the indisputable leader of the gang, the most tip-top, the best there’s ever been?
This is what we all want to happen, isn’t it? In the past Argentina have seriously looked like they fancied a third mundial but then they’ve blown up, taken too many drugs, been found to have no defence, lost their nerve or peaked too early with the greatest-ever World Cup goal (controversial, this: the celestial 25-pass move finished by Esteban Cambiasso against Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 edges out Carlos Alberto in my book). No Palacio this time but Higuain is still around along with Sergio Aguero and some much-needed youthful dynamism in Paulo Dybala, pictured. At the back, though, I don’t see a leader/bully – a Daniel Passarella (so hard he kicked Graeme Souness pre-match in a Serie A tunnel) or a Roberto Ayala. Nicolas Otamendi and Federico Fazio were left gibbering wrecks at Anfield after Liverpool had finished with them in the Champions League. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was excellent four years ago but once again much will depend on Messi who fired a glorious hat-trick against Ecuador to get Argentina to the finals and may have to repeat the feat, and possibly more than once.
In 2014 after Argentina eventually overcame Nigeria, the Super Eagles’ coach declared: “Messi is from Jupiter.” And when they struggled to beat Belgium his own manager was moved to remark: “Messi was our water in the desert.” If Russia cannot be Messi’s crowning glory then the tournament definitely needs brilliance from somewhere, for after that everything changes. The World Cup next goes to the desert, to Qatar, and it might as well be Jupiter. This World Cup needs brilliance because the one after that will have 48 teams – too many. This World Cup needs brilliance because club football is trying to throttle international football to death and a bigger tournament in 2026 won’t actually help. This World Cup needs brilliance because there’s the sneering assumption – based around corruption, hooliganism and the long distances – that Russia is going to be unmemorable at best and probably something worse. Let’s hope brilliance wins it, rather than the team who are least knackered. What was the last one like again? Good but not great, and what sticks in the mind is the shock and awe caused by the thrashings of the two most fancied nations, Brazil and Spain, by Germany and Holland respectively. Beyond that, where was the solid-gold classic match? Germany themselves were good but not great and theirs, not for the first time, was a team-is-all triumph. Denied their most mercurial talent through injury, the made-of-glass Marco Reus, although he’s back this time, they didn’t have a megastar like Messi and in the end, just, they didn’t need one. This time they don’t think they need Leroy Sane and there’s no place for the matchwinner in Brazil, Mario Gotze. Germany simply don’t do sentimental choices.
I sincerely hope that Rafael Marquez, magisterial for marvellous Mexico at the last World Cup until duped into a 90+4 penalty, isn’t a sentimental pick for his fifth finals because he’s 39 now. At the other end of the scale, 23-year-old Adrien Rabiot hasn’t made the France squad. Scots who witnessed the gliding playmaker mastermind Paris Saint-Germain’s destruction of Celtic in the Champions League will be astonished. But then we haven’t qualified so what do we know? France flickered in 2014 as an exciting team in development; let’s see whether the promise can be fulfilled. Four years ago, Mexico, Colombia and Chile were like the the cool, culty bands halfway down the bill of a big rock festival who very nearly stole the show from the familiar monoliths. No Chile this time but Italy won’t be rockin’ the main stage either and I don’t agree their absence devalues the tournament. They were abysmal in Brazil and in 2010 and presumably returned home to a tomato fusillade like in 1966. What do I want? I want the best players to give of their best, new stars to emerge, and a team to come from nowhere and charm us. I want the knockout phase to lose the fear factor, with no teams holding on for penalties. I want football to be declared the overwhelming winner and for Vladimir Putin to accept that exploiting the tournament for propaganda purposes – a vlanity project, indeed – would have been pointless. And I want the wee Argentine No 10 to stand at eye level with the trophy and for once break into an unforced, unbashful smile.