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World Cup: Time to turn on the magic

Lionel Messi wants to ‘enjoy the experience’ in hunt for elusive trophy
Lionel Messi.
Lionel Messi.
File photo

Angshuman Roy   |   Doha   |   Published 22.11.22, 03:38 AM

Lionel Messi walked into the packed media conference at the Qatar National Convention Centre on Monday evening with a smile. This was his first news meet in what is likely his last World Cup. At 35, he is “feeling good” and, by his own admission, he is more mature.

“Maybe I’m a bit more mature now. I don’t know if I’m at my happiest, but yes, I’m feeling good. I want to enjoy the moment (of this World Cup) like we did at the Copa America (last summer) and through the qualification. Early on in my career, I missed noticing all this. Then I would only think about playing and then, the next game. Now, it is the small details that matter. It’s most likely my last World Cup, so I want to enjoy the experience,” he said ahead of Argentina’s opener against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.

There had been speculation over his fitness after reports came in that he had trained alone in Doha. Messi missed the penultimate match for Paris Saint-Germain but returned for the last game before the French league took the World Cup break.

He allayed such fears. “I heard that they said I trained differently. It was because I had a knock but there is nothing strange (happening). It was just a precaution.”

Asked if he did anything special to prepare for the World Cup, Messi said: “I didn’t do anything special.”

Having enjoyed a mind-blowing career at the club level, Messi would like the World Cup in his trophy cabinet.

“It’s a beautiful thing that many people outside Argentina want us to be champions and that it’s largely because of me. I’m grateful for the love I’ve received around the world during my career, and in Qatar, it’s another example of that. I don’t know if we arrive better than at other World Cups. But we’ve just won (the 2021 Copa America) and that decompresses us a lot. It makes us work in a different way, without anxiety about the national team and its results, and enjoying ourselves,” he said.

Tickets for Argentina’s opening game, at Lusail Stadium, had been sold out months back. Messi, as always, remains the biggest draw of the World Cup. 

At the Barawat Al Janoub Clusters in Al Wakrah, a group of Argentine fans unfurled a giant Diego Maradona holding aloft the World Cup flag, happily allowing everyone to touch the flag. Maradona’s second death anniversary falls on November 25. The last time Argentina won the Cup was 36 years ago, when Maradona clinched it with his brilliance. Since then they have played two finals, losing to Germany both times. In 1990, when the world cried with Maradona, and 24 years later Messi met with a similar fate.

This time, the buzz is they can breach the frontier finally but then it’s the World Cup where anything can happen. Argentina are unbeaten in 36 matches and against Saudi Arabia they are expected to equal the world record set by Italy.

After the World Cup Round of 16 exit in Russia 2018, coach Lionel Scaloni, which drew criticism from every quarter. He was an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla and then with the Argentina national team.

Scaloni did not have any head coach experience and not much was expected from him. But then the doubts were blown away as Scaloni, initially as an interim coach, built a team around Messi with some extremely physically strong players.

Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes and Alexis Mac Allister are the three midfielders who give present-day football’s most famous No. 10 the freedom to roam anywhere on the field. Up front, they have Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria. The defence though looks a bit cagey with Nicolas Otamendi and Cristian Romero.

The Copa America triumph beating Brazil 1-0 at the Maracana in the summer of 2021 was the biggest thing to happen to Argentina football in recent years. This summer they ran over Italy, the champions of Europe, 3-0, with Messi magic in full display.

The sold-out crowd on Tuesday afternoon will be there expecting him to turn on the magic once more.

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