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'Messi's best & possibly last chance to win the World Cup'

Interview/Sourav Ganguly

Sourav Ganguly at his corporate office in the city on Wednesday. Picture by Santosh Ghosh

Calcutta: Sourav Ganguly, best known as one of India's most iconic cricket captains, actually first caught the eye in football. He has, over the years, made appearances in matches for charity or just exhibition games of football.

On Wednesday, Sourav spoke to The Telegraph at his "corporate office," which is a mere minute's walk from his residence off the chaotic Behala multi-point crossing.

Sourav retired in 2008, but his association with the sport which gave him a global identity continues: He's the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal.

Excerpts...

Q You captained India with distinction in cricket, but football was your first love...

A At St Xavier's, I wore the school colours in football first... Till class VIII or so, cricket took a back seat. Later, the script unfolded very differently, but I've retained my interest in football.

Q Thoughts with the World Cup not very many hours away...

A From childhood, I've been a Brazil fan. That's one team which would be talked about the most when I was young. Obviously, I'd like them to do very well, but I can't say whether they can win the World Cup for a sixth time... Where players go, for me, nobody has been better than Diego Maradona. I still recall how fascinated we were with Argentina's display in the 1986 World Cup. So, Argentina too hold a special place in my heart... Let's not forget they have Lionel Messi.

Q Which four teams could make the semi-finals?

A Impossible to predict at this stage... Brazil have Neymar, but it's to be seen if he can go through the World Cup without fitness issues. Expectations never leave Brazil and we all saw how, playing at home with such enormous expectations, they crumbled in the 2014 semi-final against Germany and got hammered 1-7... Argentina... Well, this is Messi's best and possibly last opportunity to win a World Cup. As this could be his last chance, Messi will be high on motivation... Germany are the defending champions and possess such an enviable record in World Cups. They will always be strong contenders... I understand Spain have a good team this time, but it would be interesting to see the fall out of the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup. Those in authority have made a huge call... Cristiano Ronaldo is brilliant, but do Portugal have the team to complement his class? I don't know... There are other good teams as well and a clearer picture will emerge after each team has played two matches... The quality of competition even in the World Cup qualifiers is such that powerhouse Italy didn't make it to Russia - a dubious first for them in over half a century... I'd like to add that one cannot judge by the results of friendlies and the players' performances in leagues across the globe.

Q In other words, in a team sport, the unit must gel...

A Exactly.

Q Could Messi succumb to all the pressure?

A Messi is a seasoned professional and is high on passion. If he wasn't passionate about playing for Argentina, he wouldn't have returned to international football after quitting in 2016 (post the penalty fiasco in the Copa America final against Chile). Being a pro, I'm sure Messi will start the World Cup with a clear head, keeping the pressure away.

Q Are today's footballers more skilful than the previous generations?

A Hard to generalise... All I'll say is that almost every generation has produced a champion or somebody capable of igniting one's imagination. I do expect a few sparks of genius in this World Cup.

Q Travelling to Russia?

A No.

Q You mentioned the bit about Brazil cracking under pressure in front of a fanatical home crowd... Would you, then, give much higher marks to Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men for winning the 2011 World Cup, at home, ending a 28-year wait.

A Definitely. India had an excellent campaign and till Dhoni's MoM innings of 91 not out, the final against Sri Lanka had been in the balance.

Q What does it take to win a World Cup?

A Skill, obviously, and the ability to handle pressure. The final comes down to a limited time period and a spark of brilliance is required... Having captained India to the final of the 2003 World Cup, I'm aware of what it is to be a loser after a fantastic run. Winning a World Cup sort of defines a professional's career.

Q Does the loss to Australia still hurt?

A Fifteen years later, no.

Q Do you regret having asked Australia to bat?

A No. The wicket was damp... Kumar Sangakkara batted first, yet Sri Lanka lost the 2011 final... Four years later, Brendon McCullum won the toss and made first use of the MCG wicket, but Australia won. So, you cannot pin it down to the toss... I don't agree that, much against my instincts, I'd become defensive in Johannesburg that morning.

Q Can cricket catch up with football globally?

A No. Just look at the difference in numbers... Far more countries play football. Fifa has 211 members, while the ICC's strength is 105. The numbers tell a story.

Q Are you happy with Ireland and Afghanistan getting Test status?

A Indeed, yes... I wish Afghanistan the very best on their debut, in Bangalore, and I hope India haven't prepared a turner at the Chinnaswamy.

Q You'd captained India during Bangladesh's inaugural Test, back in November 2000... Your take on Afghanistan?

A Two things: Afghanistan look much better prepared for Test cricket than Bangladesh were 18 years ago. Secondly, it's pretty clear that there's plenty of talent in Afghanistan... Yes, it's to be seen how the Rashid Khans cope up with Test cricket, but one can only judge after they've got exposure at the highest level. Not just the highest level, but in the sport's best format... You can only improve by playing more and more. So, Ireland and Afghanistan deserve opportunities.

Q The last one... What's the top requirement to move from A to A-plus at the highest level?

A Hunger... The hunger to cross what is a difficult line. You may be born with talent, but won't make it big unless you have the hunger too.

Lionel Messi

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