Messi heading for fifth and final chance of World Cup glory with Argentina

Veteran forward will be aiming to get his hands on gold medal he craves at Qatar finals

By the time a footballer starts preparing for his fifth World Cup, he knows the routine. Not many have been in this rare position. Few have experienced such a pattern of tantalising disappointment as Lionel Messi.

Messi led Argentina in the goalless draw against Brazil on Tuesday night that confirms his country’s qualification, with four matches to spare, for Qatar 2022. He will have a few items on his wishlist.

To avoid Germany, perhaps: In three of his previous World Cups, defeat to the Germans has been the last episode of his tournament, whether watching from the bench as a teenager as a penalty-shoot-out eliminated his country, or taking a battering, 4-0 in 2010, in another quarter-final; or, even worse, losing the 2014 final in extra-time.

He might target yet another Argentina versus Nigeria. In 2008, Messi won an Olympic final against Nigeria and in three out of four of his World Cups, the Super Eagles have been defeated, usually with the Argentina talisman on the scoresheet.

Above all, he hopes that World Cup number five ends with the gold medal he most craves, one that would better balance a meagre international trophy-yield — one Olympics; a World Cup at under-20s; one Copa America — with his vast haul of club honours.

For the first time at a Messi-era World Cup, any Argentinian shortcomings will not be accompanied by that familiar whisper of complaint — that Messi does not perform as brilliantly for his country as for Barcelona.

His employers now are Paris Saint-Germain, the club funded from Qatar, and though he is still in his early days at PSG, the mutterings these days are more likely to be the other way around — with Parisians being envious of Messi’s fine form for his country.

He is still finding his way with the club he joined in August. With Argentina, the longed-for senior title — July’s 2020 Copa America — is fresh in the memory and a sturdy run of form has accompanied World Cup qualification.

Argentina are 27 matches unbeaten, and Messi, 34, has played in every minute of all but one of the last 21 of those games. “We are getting stronger and stronger,” he said after the draw with already-qualified Brazil.

Some compatriots sense as happy a marriage between an expectant country and their superstar as at any time in his 16 years as a senior international. “During this [unbeaten] run Argentina have understood how to play with him, not for him, and it has taken years to learn that.” noted Clarin columnist Maximiliano Uria. “The next stage will be learning to play without him.”

Qatar, logically, will be Messi’s last World Cup. He will turn 35 in June. No footballer has yet appeared at six World Cups, and while Fifa are contemplating altering the cycle so the event comes around every two years rather than every four, that would not happen until after 2026.

Messi will also note that two of the five-time World Cup veterans were goalkeepers — the Mexican Antonio Carbajal went to every tournament between 1950 and 1966, the Italian Gigi Buffon was in each Italian squad between 1998 and 2014. Ominously, of the champions among the four players who were at five World Cups, Buffon and Germany’s Lothar Matthaus (1982 to 1998) peaked at the third attempt. In their fourth and fifth World Cups, Italy and Germany went home earlier than expected.

But Messi has 12 months to set a timetable so he can peak next December, manage his fitness. It’s a comfortable position compared with some of the would-be stars of World Cup 2022.

Cristiano Ronaldo, also seeking a fifth World Cup, has to negotiate the tricky European play-offs in March because Portugal dramatically lost top place in their qualifying group in the last minute of their last group game against Serbia. Robert Lewandowski’s Poland are in those play-offs, as are Italy and a Sweden still unsure about whether they play with, or play for — or play better without — 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The World Cup will not be featuring Erling Braut Haaland, after Norway, without their injured prodigy, missed out on a play-off spot. Still in the waiting room of qualification are Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, among the ten African teams who will play-off, over home and away legs, in March. In real jeopardy are the Uruguay of Messi’s close friend Luis Suarez, who have lost their last four qualifiers. They sit a lowly seventh in the South American group that Messi so comfortably dealt with.

Updated: November 18th 2021, 2:57 AM