Sixteen years after frustratingly looking on from the bench as one of the unused substitutes in Argentina’s defeat to Germany in the 2006 World Cup, Lionel Messi is now all set to make his final attempt to win the biggest trophy of them all.
Messi had gone into his first World Cup in 2006 as a wonderkid, but he failed to get regular playing time in that wonderful Argentina team built by Jose Pekerman.
Despite playing some magical football in that tournament, Argentina bowed out of the quarterfinal stage, losing to hosts Germany on penalties.
Pekerman, who had got a second chance at coaching after unsuccessful stints pushed him to do odd jobs for a living, built that 2006 Argentina World Cup team around Juan Roman Riquelme.
Messi by then was already a regular at Barcelona and played a key role in the Catalans’ Champions Trophy victory that year.
But Pekerman continued to use Messi as an impact player in that tournament from the bench.
In what was one of the biggest mysteries in world football, Pekerman refused to bring Messi on in the second half even as Argentina desperately looked for the winner against Germany before the game went into the penalties.
It was the first of the many heartbreaks in Messi’s World Cup journey.
Now as Argentina kick off their 2022 Qatar World Cup campaign against Saudi Arabia at the 80,000-capacity Lusail Stadium, the football-loving world is holding its collective breath.
Can Messi finally inspire Argentina to a World Cup triumph?
Coach Lionel Scaloni has certainly given Messi the support he was missing in the previous four World Cups.
For the first time in more than a decade, Argentina have found a team and a system that can help Messi.
The system worked in the Copa America last year when Messi ended his drought in international football with Argentina beating fierce rivals Brazil in the final for their first trophy in 28 years.
Their thumping 5-0 victory over the UAE in the recent international friendly extended their unbeaten run to 36 matches.
It’s on the back of those results that Argentina will start their opening match of this World Cup against Saudi Arabia in the group stages on Tuesday.
Robert Lewandowski, the star striker of Poland in Group C, admitted that Argentina will be tough to beat in Qatar.
"Argentina are one of the favourites for the whole World Cup," said Lewandowski.
"They have not lost for 30-odd games, they're very dangerous opponents for everyone."
Lewandowski, who joined Barcelona from Bayern Munich, knows what Messi means to the Catalan giants and Argentinian football.
"He is a Barcelona legend. You see it all over the place being at the club," he said. “He is Argentina's leader, one of the top players. We know who we're going to play against, it's a huge challenge."
But the biggest challenge for Messi will be to deal with the pressure of expectations from the Argentina public.
For all his brilliance at club level, Messi had never quite earned the same status in Argentina as Diego Maradona.
At 35, it’s unlikely that Messi will get another chance to have a shot at glory if the Qatar campaign ends in another heartbreak.
"If Spain does not win the World Cup, I would like Argentina to win it because of Messi," Luis Enrique, Spain’s national head coach, said.
"It would be unfair for Messi to retire without winning a World Cup."
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