Lionel Messi threw his shirt at Argentinian fans: the suffering was over and it was time to celebrate the Albiceleste’s last-gasp qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but also in full knowledge that many things will need to change before June.
“After this the national team will grow, it will change,” Argentina captain Messi promised after Tuesday’s 3-1 win against Ecuador. “It is liberating to be in, and this group will draw many positive things from all this.”
Messi, who scored a hat-trick against Ecuador, and his team overcame their own ghosts, woke up from their nightmare and averted an elimination that would without a doubt have been a national disaster for football-crazy Argentina.
The win unleashed partying and sighs of relief in the Argentina dressing room at Atahualpa stadium in Quito.
There were songs, some with rude references to reporters who had questioned the players, and Messi ended his self-imposed media ban and addressed Argentinian reporters for the first time in almost a year.
The Barcelona striker, awarded the Ballon d’Or in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015, rescued a World Cup berth, but coach Jorge Sampaoli knows it will take more than one player, however good, to go far in Russia.
Argentina had only scored 16 goals in 17 qualifiers until Tuesday, and Messi admitted that “loads of things” crossed his mind when Ecuador pulled ahead less than one minute into the game.
His Argentina and Barca teammate Javier Mascherano admitted that elimination “would have ended the story” for many players, presumably with several of them stepping down from the team.
However, Messi revived Argentina and allowed them to dream of a new World Cup, to heal the the painful frustrations of the final they lost to Germany in Brazil 2014 and those they lost to Chile in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Copa America.
“What we went through is unfair because, based on merit, we deserved to win all three finals,” Messi said in Quito.
The forward, regarded by many as the best player in history, desperately wants a title with Argentina.
“Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, football owes Messi a World Cup. He is the best player in history,” Sampaoli said.
Finally rid of the urgencies he faced when he took the job with just four qualifiers to go, Sampaoli will be making changes.
“There will be many corrections in planning and in the national team. I need to work hard on what is coming,” he admitted.
Renewal will be based on a combination of veteran players and new faces of Argentinian football, a process Sampaoli has already launched through trial and error in tough circumstances, with a World Cup berth on the line.
“I hope we can analyse the past three years and rebuild Argentinian football,” Mascherano said in no uncertain terms.
“As national team players we have gone through many situations. I don’t want to present myself as a victim, but we need to analyse that and think about it, not for this generation but for the one coming after us. We will leave at some point,” the 33-year-old stressed.
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