Heart Of Football

Messi needs a World Cup if he is to be compared to Maradona

In Amsterdam's Johan Cruyff Arena, they are preparing the last lament to the Dutch Oranje. Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder can no longer play as good a game as they talk, and the team that finished third at the last World Cup face elimination without even qualifying for the next one.

In Buenos Aires, where Argentina beat the Netherlands to win the 1978 final, there is fear and fury that La Albiceleste (The White and Sky Blue) who were beaten by Germany in the 2014 final, will also not reach the 2018 tournament.

Argentina and Lionel Messi can yet rescue themselves in the mountains of Ecuador on Tuesday night.

The fading of the Dutch flower, and the alarm in Argentina signify huge changes in world football. Of course, generations grow old, and Holland, a nation of only 17 million people, have had a long and influential innings with the Total Football that Cruyff inspired for his, and the next generation of players.

Argentina, though, are something else. From their 44 million people, they have been a long presence in the global game, producing such extraordinary players as Alfredo di Stefano, the Real Madrid phenomenon of the 1950s, and Diego Maradona and Messi.

Messi is the world's most beautiful player when he performs with his adopted home club, Barcelona.

But Messi with La Albiceleste cuts a forlorn, unfulfilled, exasperated figure. Yes, his 58 goals in 121 games are a national team record. But he knows, the world knows, that he needs to win a World Cup to stand favourable comparison to Maradona.

Lionel Messi shows his frustration after the 0-0 draw against Peru. Argentina will face Ecuador next in Quito, where they have been beaten twice.
Lionel Messi shows his frustration after the 0-0 draw against Peru. Argentina will face Ecuador next in Quito, where they have been beaten twice. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Unless things go his way in Ecuador this week, he could either be down and out, or facing home and away qualification in a play-off against New Zealand next month. That sounds as remote as it is far-fetched. New Zealand, with all due respect, are toddlers in this sport. They are the All Whites, not the fearsome All Blacks of rugby domination.

Yet when Chris Wood, the Kiwi striker of Burnley, speaks of the possibility of New Zealand versus Argentina, he is far from afraid.

"If it does turn out to be Argentina," the Aucklander says, "it is going to be a big challenge. But they are there for a reason, and it would be because they haven't done well enough."

Wood is spot on. After 17 rounds in the firmament of South American qualifying, Argentina have won only six, drawn seven, and lost four.

Most obviously, their attack has been impotent: 17 games played, 16 goals scored. Messi, who does it hundreds of times for Barca, and scores out of nothing but his imagination, cannot do it alone for his country.

The rot set in without him when he missed over half the qualifying process through injury or suspension. If you remember, he was in such despair at the last Copa America tournament that he vowed to quit, to sacrifice himself for the national cause. They didn't let him, of course. But in the last eight qualifiers, he has scored only four goals; none in the most recent three.

He isn't alone. Far from it. They have Sergio Aguero (currently injured, but dropped before that). They have Gonzalo Higuain (not even on the bench for the last game). They boast Paulo Dybala, the Juventus player who compares himself to Messi but at 23 has mountains to move to merit that mantle.

They have Inter's Mauro Icardi. And Jorge Sampaoli, the latest coach trying to gel the talents that look so good in club sides, left them all out in the last game and favoured Dario Benedetto who, at 27 years of age, has never scored and seldom been chosen for La Albiceleste.

Messi played his heart out. He hit a post. But if Messi doesn't score, it seems nobody has the ability or the will to step up and help the team out.

Maybe Sampaoli figured that Benedetto was on home ground, and that the latest Boca Juniors striker would ride the crest of the wave at the famed Bombonera stadium.

It didn't happen. Reducing that 49,000 crowd to silence, or rather to sullen criticism of their own countrymen, achieved by yet another draw, 0-0, against Peru, takes some doing.

Messi played his heart out. He hit a post. But if Messi doesn't score, it seems nobody has the ability or the will to step up and help the team out.

This was the failing that forced Gerardo "Tata" Martino, the previous coach, to resign. And despite, or because of Martino and Sampaoli going through 38 different outfield players over the course of this qualifying campaign, Argentina travel to Ecuador in fear rather than in anticipation.

If Messi is there, something good will happen for Argentina is the hope, the expectation. Ecuador are already out, and cannot qualify.

But this final group game is being played in Quito, in the Andes at about 2,800m above sea level. The air is thin at that altitude and, though Ecuador lost qualifiers there to Brazil, Chile and Peru in this qualifying period, they were previously unbeaten 34 times out of 37 home World Cup games stretching back to 2000.

Ecuador have nothing to lose, a big scalp to gain. They have turned Argentina over twice before at this stadium, and provided the shock of the early rounds when Frickson Erazo and Felipe Caicedo scored two goals in the 81st and 82nd minutes for a stunning 2-0 win in Buenos Aires a year ago.

Neither scorer is in the squad for the second game. But Manchester United's Antonio Valencia is, and so is "Superman", otherwise known as Enner Valencia.

The former West Ham and Everton player, now in Mexican league soccer, Enner has 21 goals from 40 games for Ecuador.

"Stop him, feed Messi, and pray" might represent a game plan for Argentina. And even that would still leave La Albiceleste on the brink. They will be left sweating on the results involving Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and Peru, who all start this final round of games in front of Argentina.

Never mind Messi, the country needs an escapologist like Houdini to get out of this mess.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Messi needs a World Cup if he is to be compared to Maradona'. Print Edition | Subscribe