As qualifying for next summer’s World Cup reached a climax towards the end of 2017, the presence of arguably the greatest player in the history of the game at the Russia showpiece was in plenty of doubt. After suffering a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia in La Paz last March, Argentina sacked their Coach, Edgardo Bauza. Despite an encouraging friendly victory over Brazil and a thrashing of Singapore, the appointment of Jorge Sampaoli did little to improve performances in qualifying.
La Albiceleste drew their first three qualifiers under the former Chile and Sevilla boss, including home games against Venezuela and Peru, leaving them on the brink of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970.
For the runners-up last time in Brazil and a team packed with global stars, it would’ve been an unmitigated disaster. It all came down to a trip to Quito high in the Andean foothills, for a tricky game against Ecuador. In the first minute of the game, Argentina went behind. And then Lionel Messi stepped up.
The irrepressible forward had put his country into the lead before half time, and completed a stunning hat-trick in the second half to give his side a 3-1 win and secure their spot in Russia. There can be few arguments that the two-time world champions were utterly dependant on Messi on that occasion, and it wasn’t the first time.
In fact, no other player has scored a competitive goal for Argentina since 15 November 2016, a game in which Messi opened the scoring and assisted the other two in a 3-0 win over Colombia. And of the seven games that Argentina won in South American qualifying, the Barcelona forward found the back of the net in five of them, including two 1-0 victories and that hat-trick in the final fixture.
Despite this, former Argentina boss Bauza claimed that his side were not reliant on Messi when he was in charge. After Messi’s penalty was enough to secure an important win over Chile last March, Bauza outright said: “I do not think [Argentina] is Messi-dependent.”
Considering the fact that the national team boss needs to recognise the efforts of the rest of his players, his comments must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is still pertinent, however, that he was posed the questions by journalists in a country that’s at times found it hard to take to their celebrated No.10.
This is in part down to their love affair with a previous occupant of that precious shirt. Diego Maradona’s personality and sheer pig-headedness in leading Argentina to World Cup success in 1986 elevated him to god-like status in his homeland.
Messi has always struggled to live up to Maradona’s example, and he’s also been accused of holding the country of his birth less closely to his heart than his revered predecessor thanks to his decision to move to Barcelona at the age of 13.
Considering the Catalan giants agreed to pay for the treatment he needed for a growth hormone deficiency, it’s a tough stick for Argentines to beat their record scorer with, especially when you think that Messi’s already moved past 60 goals for his country and has nearly double Maradona’s total of 34.
After announcing his international retirement following the heartbreak of a second penalty shootout defeat against Chile in the Copa America Final, the thawing of relations towards Messi was shown by the campaign for him to reconsider. Even the President of Argentina Mauricio Macri got involved, urging him not to quit in a gushing statement at a news conference ahead of a cabinet meeting. “We are lucky, it is one of life’s pleasures, it is a gift from God to have the best player in the world in a footballing country like ours,” Macri said. “Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him.”
If this adoration can shine through on the road to Russia, then it could give Messi an even bigger boost heading into a tournament which could define his career.
In the perennial Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo contest to be regarded as the finest player in the world, the Portuguese stole a march at Euro 2016 by leading his country to an international title. If Messi can go one better and claim the World Cup in Russia, it could even put to bed the question of who is the best player of all time.
Yes, Argentina have a squad full of talented players. But yes, they are dependent on Messi. But why shouldn’t they be? It’s not even up for a moment’s debate that they have one of the very finest footballers that’s ever graced the game. There’s nothing wrong with leaning on the best in the business, because the best in the business usually deliver.
The problems will arise — as they have in the past — when Messi doesn’t perform for his country. After all, he is only human. With Argentina’s challenge for the trophy depending so much on Messi’s form and fitness going into the tournament, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on the 30-year-old’s shoulders.
With Barca well-placed in the battle for Spain’s La Liga title, it could be the case that Messi gets the odd rest in the run-up to the World Cup. If he misfires in Russia though, then Sampaoli will need other members of his star-studded squad to step up.
And here lies the crux of the matter. While Argentina have relied heavily on Messi of late, their chances of success in the summer rest more heavily on whether other men among their plethora of stars rise to the occasion. The likes of Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria could all have major roles to play.
Messi will always be the talisman, the one who the rest look to for inspiration and a moment of genius that can settle a game. But few tournaments are won through the exertions of one man alone, and if Argentina are to have any hope of winning the World Cup, their magical No.10 needs his supporting cast to come to the party.