Belfast Telegraph

Pressure on Messi as his nation expects

 

By Adrian Rutherford

Lionel Messi doesn't just carry the hope of a nation at this World Cup, he carries the expectation. And it's a colossal burden.

Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli summed it up in one sentence.

"Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup, and if he doesn't win it, he's shot and killed," he said recently.

A bit over-dramatic? Undoubtedly. But you get the point.

Because no player enters this tournament under more pressure than Messi, who, eight days away from turning 31, may not get another chance to secure the last major accolade missing from a storied career.

The spotlight will glare on him today as Argentina kick-off their World Cup campaign against Iceland in Moscow.

It is nearly 30 years since the Albiceleste last lifted the trophy.

They lost the 2014 final against Germany, and were defeated in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016.

The latter ended with a tearful Messi left distraught after missing his kick in the decisive penalty shoot-out.

If Argentina are to overcome their nearly-men tag and triumph in Russia - and this is a side who very nearly didn't even make it here - then he must flourish.

But the pressure is unremitting, the scrutiny unrelenting.

Argentina president Mauricio Macri said of his country's chances: "The most important thing is to compete well and then God and Messi will decide if we can win the World Cup."

Jorge Valdano, part of the last Argentine side to lift the World Cup, has declared Messi the first genius of the 21st century.

Former defender Javier Zanetti, who played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, believes the team's recent struggles have only heightened expectation.

"The defeats in the two Copa America and World Cup finals further increase pressure on him and the team from the press. We expect a lot," he said this week.

"It (the World Cup) stops all the country, there is great enthusiasm and passion for this national team."

For others, only lifting the World Cup will finally put to rest the nagging questions about Messi's legacy and allow him to break out of the long shadow of Diego Maradona.

Much has been spoken of the complex and complicated relationship between player and country.

Messi left Argentina aged 13 to play for Barcelona - he was dubbed The Catalan - and it has created a disconnect.

His reluctance to sing the national anthem has come under scrutiny; a statue unveiled in Buenos Aires in 2016 was vandalised twice.

The perception among some is that his brilliant Barcelona club form - 552 goals, four Champions Leagues, nine league titles, five Ballons d'Or and three Club World Cups - has not been reproduced on the international stage.

The lingering memory of Maradona winning a World Cup for Argentina, almost single‑handedly, has fuelled expectation.

Messi has been to three tournaments already. The final defeat of 2014, when Mario Gotze scored in extra-time for Germany, followed two quarter-final exits in 2006 and 2010 against the same opponents.

In that time, he has become a lightning rod for a country's deep-rooted frustration.

And that angst will only increase if Argentina fall short again in Russia. This is far from a vintage side, one that almost didn't qualify, but for a one-man rescue act from - who else? - Messi.

His hat-trick in the final qualifier against Ecuador, amid the high pressure and high altitude of Quito last November, saw them scrape through.

Yet they arrive in Russia in a troubled state.

The chaotic last-minute cancellation of a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem last weekend disrupted preparation.

A second friendly against Nicaragua was also called off amid safety concerns, meaning their only warm-up was a 4-0 win over Haiti.

It is hardly ideal build-up for an awkward group which, after a tricky opener against Iceland, brings games against Croatia and Nigeria, who beat them 4-2 in a friendly last November.

Injury has ruled out their first-choice goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, and forward Manuel Lanzini.

Argentina also have the oldest squad of the 32 teams - at an average 29 years and six months - which will test Sampaoli's high-pressing tactics.

So too a likely back line of Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Marcos Rojo.

It is a defence that lacks the quality of an impressive forward line, featuring Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, with 68 international goals between them.

Angel di Maria and Paulo Dybala bring creativity. But it is Messi who holds the key to Argentina's World Cup fortunes, and to whom a nation looks once again.

No pressure then.

Meanwhile, Iceland boss Heimir Hallgrimsson has labelled his side's World Cup opener against Argentina "the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football".

The World Cup debutants, who inflicted a humiliating defeat on England in the last 16 at Euro 2016, will come up against Messi and co in Moscow in their first Group D clash.

And Hallgrimsson and his staff have a "headache" ahead of the game, with every player in the squad keen to face the two-time world champions.

He said: "Everyone wants to play.

"This is the biggest game in the history of Icelandic football and it's a headache which our training team has to work on."

In a bid to prevent questions about his other job, Hallgrimsson added: "I am still a dentist and I will never stop being a dentist."

Argentina

Iceland

World Cup Group D

Nizhny Novgorod, Today, 2.00pm

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