Messi not hanging up his shirt yet

Lionel Messi in training at the team's base camp in Bronnitsy yesterday. Argentina have no room for error against Nigeria today.
Lionel Messi in training at the team's base camp in Bronnitsy yesterday. Argentina have no room for error against Nigeria today.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Talisman won't give up on Cup dream even if Argentina do not progress to next phase

ST PETERSBURG • Lionel Messi has reportedly revealed that today will not be the last time he plays in an Argentina shirt, even if La Albiceleste fail to make the World Cup knockout stages.

They will secure qualification for the last 16 if they record a win over Nigeria, who Argentina have beaten in all four previous World Cup meetings, and if Iceland do not defeat already-qualified Croatia in the other Group D game today.

Even if Iceland claim a first World Cup victory, Argentina could still progress on goal difference or even goals scored.

There are plenty of ifs, but one thing appears certain: Messi will not consider international retirement for the second time just yet.

The Barcelona star, who turned 31 on Sunday, will be 35 when the next World Cup comes around.

Many observers, including former team-mate Pablo Zabaleta, believe Messi will not feature in Qatar 2022 if he faces disappointment today. But the five-time Ballon d'Or winner will keep dreaming of winning a first major trophy with his country.

HIS NO. 1 GOAL

I have won all the most important tournaments but I am ambitious to the end. I would not like to retire from active football without being a world champion with my country.

LIONEL MESSI, Argentina captain, on his lifelong target of lifting the trophy.

"It means so much because for Argentina the World Cup is special - and for me too," Messi, who briefly retired from international football in 2016, was quoted in The Mirror as saying. "I've always had the dream of watching me raise the World Cup. And then seeing the emotion that goes with it.

"My hair stands on end just thinking about that moment. It would make millions of Argentinians in the world happy. So we cannot give up on that dream.

"I have won all the most important tournaments but I am ambitious to the end. I would not like to retire from active football without being a world champion with my country."

Argentina face an uphill task to go all the way this time following their 3-0 World Cup defeat by Croatia. That loss was Argentina's heaviest in a World Cup group-stage match since 1958.

The Argentine Football Association was moved on Saturday to confirm that Jorge Sampaoli would continue for the final group game amid rumours of a rift between players and coach.

A day later, Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano insisted the relationship between the two sides was totally normal.

"Leo is fine," added Mascherano, who knows Messi better than most having spent eight years as his club team-mate at Barcelona.

"He is a human being who has his frustrations because things haven't worked out, but so are we all.

"Like it or not, we are the runners-up from the World Cup and we have to show it."

According to various British papers, Argentina will revert to the 4-3-3 formation in a bid to get the best out of Messi. Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero is set to lose his starting place to Gonzalo Higuain.

Three other personnel changes are expected - goalkeeper Willy Caballero, whose error led to Croatia's opener, will be replaced by debutant Franco Arman, while Marcos Acuna and Enzo Perez will make way for Angel di Maria and Ever Banega.

Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr believes his side can eliminate Argentina. He told Fifa.com: "The whole world will be watching this game and it's a chance to show what we're capable of."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2018, with the headline 'Messi not hanging up his shirt yet'. Print Edition | Subscribe