On the eve of a World Cup he is expected to finally seize, Leo Messi actually let go a little. The Argentine playmaker was unusually frank in a much-anticipated TV interview with broadcaster Victor Hugo Morales.
“There is a lot of anticipation,” Messi told DeporTV. “I think I have also learned from what I did badly in earlier World Cups, in order to not repeat those errors.”
The irony is that, for once, it is not those errors being discussed. Any pressure on Messi has not been about the perception that he has yet failed to properly apply his transcendent talent on the most historic global stage. Instead, debate has centred around a host of more recent issues.
It started with the 26-year-old’s father defending his increasing tendency to vomit before games, continued with reports of new police investigations into his family’s tax affairs and culminated in more speculation about his future at Barcelona.
All of that brings to a head what has been an underwhelming season for Messi, in which his hugely conspicuous drop-off in intensity was said to sum up and partially cause the overall decline at Camp Nou. It also ensures this is a genuine juncture tournament - and not just for his mood.
Failure would properly round off one of the worst years of Messi’s career, and possibly end his chance of ever truly making this great tournament his own, given that he will turn 31 during 2018. That argument about the World Cup would always remain, regardless of how many Champions Leagues he ends up winning.
By contrast, success would fully confirm his lasting greatness. There would be, quite literally, no more worlds left to conquer. The stakes of this single tournament are that propitious.
Messi can end Argentina’s 21-year wait for a trophy by delivering that landmark third World Cup in the home of their most historic rivals. It would be the ultimate victory to finally and fully endear him to his country in the manner of so many legends before him. In that regard, however, the exact time and place adds an even deeper dimension.
At 26 and preparing for the first World Cup in Latin America since Mexico 86, Messi finds himself around the same age and stage of his career as Diego Maradona was in that defining tournament. It is almost as if the stars have aligned, and one of them can burn brighter than ever before. That is the truly tantalising aspect of taking hold of this tournament for Messi.
He would not just echo Maradona. He would undeniably surpass him. Because, when you compare their CVs up to just before Mexico 86 and Brazil 2014, there is a genuine divergence. By that point, Maradona had won just one Argentine title and one domestic cup. Messi, however, has six leagues, three domestic cups and three Champions Leagues.
Really, the World Cup was the first truly international trophy of Maradona’s career, and the first confirmation of his immortal genius. By contrast, it is the last thing Messi is missing.
In that regard, few players can claim to have been so dominant right across all the highest levels of the sport. Fewer still can claim to have actually delivered the biggest trophies right across all levels of the sport. That is why this a dominant tournament would be even more momentous. Debate might persist over whether Messi had the same inherent talent of so many of his predecessors, but few would be able to deny he applied it better than any of them.
The only remaining question, then, would appear to be over his mindset; over that readiness.
Here, there is another parallel. For all the eventual perfection of Maradona’s 1986 World Cup, his preparation was wholly imperfect. His badly damaged ankle denied him full fitness, many of his more senior team-mates - such as Daniel Passarella - wanted to deny the No. 10 such a central role in the team.
Then, just before the tournament started, he was delivered a shock - if one completely of his own making. News came from Naples that his pregnant former lover, Cristiana Sinagra, was going to take him to court if he continued to deny parental responsibility. Maradona was said to be “shell-shocked” by the phone-call, wandering among his team-mates looking “drawn and tense”.
Yet, just before the tournament began, there was a transformation. All around him noted it. It was as if he had taken the conscious decision to just distil so much anxiety into the singular drive to win the World Cup. It was the ultimate proof that a bad year does not necessarily prevent a brilliant summer.
And, on the eve of this World Cup in Belo Horizonte, there wasn’t exactly much proof that Messi was drawn or tense. He looked contented, joking with his room-mate Sergio Aguero.
Some around the Argentine camp have thought he has taken a similar singular decision to Maradona in 1986; that he has poured everything into this World Cup; that he realises its resonance.
Messi may have lost the Ballon D’Or and so much else this season. He can ending it by making the World Cup his own.
Miguel Delaney is based in Rio and covering Argentina for us at the World Cup finals - you can find him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney
- Sports & Recreation
- Leo Messi
- Diego Maradona