Lionel Messi‘s legacy in football certainly knows no bounds, but in truth, that only is limited to club football.
A seven-time Ballon d’Or winner with 41 career trophies, Messi has pivoted the success of any team he has represented – FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain or, to an extent, Argentina. But if there is something that continues to elude him among his greatest highs, it is the FIFA World Cup.
Lionel Messi has played 164 times for Argentina, scoring 90 times as the second-highest active goalscorer in international football. However, despite these figures, the ‘Messiah’ has only won three major honours at the senior level – Beijing 2008 (Olympic Football), Copa America (2021) and the Finalissima (2022).
Some might argue that his sheer brilliance in an Argentina shirt is not reciprocated by his teammates over the years, as seen in Copa America. In his first five tournament appearances, Messi ended as a runner-up thrice (2007, 2015, 2016).
But come 2021, the Argentina team took a stand and pushed their way to beat hosts Brazil 1-0 in the final at the iconic Maracanã Stadium. This result would be part of their ongoing 35-match unbeaten run in international football that began in July 2019.
Suppose Argentina plays at FIFA World Cup 2022 with the same hunger for victory as they did in Copa America 2021; fans could see Lionel Messi and his La Albiceleste possibly qualify for the final. And if fate is kind, a mouth-watering final clash between Messi and long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal as both players will play their fifth FIFA World Cup.
Ahead of what is Lionel Messi’s last FIFA World Cup assignment, we revisit his past campaigns at football’s grandest competition.
After a string of impressive displays for the Under-20s team and in the World Cup qualifying games, Lionel Messi got his first taste of FIFA World Cup action in an unconventional way – an unused substitute in the 3-1 win over Ivory Coast.
However, it didn’t take long for the future football megastar to make an impression on his first-ever on-field appearance for Argentina.
Coming on as a substitute in the 74th minute for Maxi Rodriguez, Messi became the youngest World Cup goal scorer for La Albiceleste with his 88th-minute strike against Serbia and Montenegro.
He remained unbeaten in his next two games (0-0 vs the Netherlands, 2-1 AET vs Mexico) before once again being an unused player on the bench in the 3-5 penalty defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals.
With Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona joining forces as player and coach, many onlookers termed the partnership as a match made in heaven and that the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa would see the team end their 24-year-wait to claim a third title.
However, it was a case of ‘marry in haste, repent in leisure’. While Messi managed just one assist in five games, a lapse in Maradona’s tactical approach saw Argentina fall to a second successive quarter-final heartbreak at the hands of Joachim Low’s Germany.
A first FIFA World Cup as Argentina’s full-time captain, Lionel Messi produced his best return in the competition (four goals, one assist) and carried the team up to the final.
Messi’s hunger to win assured fans and commentators that the ‘little magician’ could go all the way and break the jinx that kept them from claiming the coveted World Cup title.
A third successive knockout fixture against Germany, this time in the final of the 2014 edition, saw Argentina once again end up on the losing side. Mario Gotze’s 113th-minute strike handed Die Mannschaft their fourth crown and the first as a unified country.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was a forgettable experience for a player of Lionel Messi’s calibre. Why? Because while he helped Argentina barely qualify for the tournament with a hat-trick against Ecuador on the final day of qualifying, his star-studded team couldn’t play to their utmost potential.
Placed alongside Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland in Group D, La Albiceleste drew 1-1 against debutants Iceland before slumping to a 0-3 loss at the hands of Luka Modric’s Croatia. Argentina sealed a second-place finish with a 2-1 win against Nigeria to progress to the Round of 16.
Argentina’s opponents in the first match of the Round of 16 were France, and the eventual World Cup winners snatched a nail-biting 4-3 win in the fixture.
Argentina’s ambitious 35-game unbeaten run in the competition boosts their realistic chances of being a title contender at FIFA World Cup 2022. But, there is one primary concern that La Albiceleste must resolve throughout the competition.
The two-time World Cup champions should not be dependent only on Lionel Messi to win games at the competition. Why? Because that is all that the team has majorly done in recent campaigns.
Lautaro Martinez, Joaquin Correa, Angel Correa and Julian Alvarez need to step up their game and take on the attacking responsibilities. This, in turn, will help Messi not only fancy his chances of finding the goal but also enjoy his time on the pitch creating opportunities for his teammates to put the finishing touches to the play in motion.
If this is achieved, we can see the boy from Rosario perhaps end his FIFA World Cup adventure with a trophy in his illustrious cabinet.
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