Lionel Messi reckons Argentina can win the World Cup
“Our challenge is to be champions,” said the Barcelona superstar.
“We know it won’t be easy but I’m certain that Argentina has a squad capable of being a champion in Russia. If the players all believe the same then we can be contenders.”
Fans wearing Lionel Messi masks and waving Barcelona flags cheered the 30-year-old’s every touch and surrounded him for autographs in Bronnitsy, south-east of the Russian capital.
The striker almost single-handedly rescued his country’s qualifying campaign to ensure they made it to Russia.
Argentina looked unlikely to qualify for a 13th consecutive World Cup finals, after Messi initially announced his international retirement in 2016.
Without him the team took just seven points from the first eight games and looked in danger of collapse.
Lionel Messi is one of the faces of this World Cup
It will be important to start strongly
But when the prodigal son returned they won 21 points from the next 10 matches, with Messi scoring a hat-trick in the final game against Ecuador to seal their place in Russia.
No wonder he was mobbed as Jorge Sampaoli’s squad went through their paces ahead of Saturday’s crucial Group D fixture.
And Lionel Messi is adamant the squad is strong enough to be one of the favourites, with stars such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain – their top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals – Nicolas Otamendi, Paulo Dybala, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria among their ranks.
“It’s true that the qualifying phase was complicated for us because we took too long to do it,” he said.
“But the important thing is that we are here in this World Cup and that we give everything to achieve as much as we can.
World Cup fever is sweeping across Russia
“If Argentina goes out there and plays as we know we can then it will be very difficult to beat us.
“We have experienced World Cups before and we know that every rival will come out to try and beat us and play the game as if it is a final. That always makes it more complicated. But we are used to it.
“It will be important to start strongly. Iceland did well in their last tournament so the first match will not be comfortable. But these are the ones to win if you don’t want the next matches to be even more complicated.”
Argentina also face Croatia and Nigeria in Group D, making it one of the tougher groups to negotiate.
“Croatia is a good team with players in the big European leagues and that makes them dangerous,” said Messi.
“We don’t know so much about Nigeria but the African teams are normally compact, tough and strong. So it will be no walkover.”
Having already retired once from international football, Messi knows this could be his final opportunity to win a World Cup.
He will be 34 by the time Qatar comes around and there aren’t too many strikers still playing at the top level at that age, especially ones who have packed so much into a long career that started so young.
Winning the World Cup has been a painful obsession at times for a player who has won everything else and who some claim could be seen as the greatest player of all time if he could only get his hands on the Jules Rimet trophy.
He became his country’s youngest World Cup star in 2006 but Argentina still went out in the quarter-finals to Germany. Then in 2010 they suffered again at the hands of the Germans in the last eight, losing 4-0.
Lionel Messi has refused to address his Barcelona future
And finally, in Brazil, he was denied a chance to win the trophy as captain when losing to the Germans for a third time.
That disappointment, and the reaction to it, eventually led to his decision to quit two years later, and already there is talk he could do so again after Russia. He appeared to hint at it in an interview with a Spanish newspaper this week, but yesterday refused to give a definite answer.
“I don’t want to speak about my future,” he said. “For now I’m only concerned about the present and doing the best I can in this World Cup.
“For Argentina the World Cup is special and it’s a big dream to lift the cup again. For me it would fulfil a childhood dream and so you can be sure I will give it everything.”