On Saturday, a rumour had swirled around the Qatar University ground over Lionel Messi’s fitness as the Argentina captain missed the start of the team’s training session. At the World Cup in Qatar, the football governing body FIFA allows the world’s media only 15 minutes to watch a team’s training session.
There was a collective gasp by those present as Messi did not turn up for training, even as his teammates practised. Post that, it was anybody’s guess whether Messi had trained or not.
Yesterday, though, the superstar striker dismissed ‘rumours’ about his fitness as he announced himself to be ready for Argentina’s opening match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium. The pictures from yesterday’s training session too later confirmed Messi indeed would be in action today.
The 35-year-old will be playing in his fifth and last World Cup, with Messi confirming yesterday that he is unlikely to appear in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026. It would be a travesty, if the Paris Saint-Germain forward had to miss out due to injury.
Messi had arrived in Qatar carrying a niggle in his Achilles tendon, which he seemed to have picked up during a friendly against the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi last week.
“I’m feeling well,” Messi told reporters yesterday. “I am very well physically and I feel in good condition. I think I come here in really good form, both personally and physically. There are no issues whatsoever. I heard there were rumours of having to miss part of training or be away from the team because of a blow but it’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he added.
There is a lot riding for Messi in Qatar, with his greatest-ever-to-play-the-game tag hinging on his ability to fill the glaring gap in his resume and win a World Cup title. Along with perennial favourites Brazil, Argentina are tipped for the title by the pundits and Messi would be hoping he would return to Lusail on November 18 for the final.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has had a strong start with PSG this season and like he has done in the past decade carries Argentina’s hopes of first World Cup title since 1986. “I’m aware it’s a very special moment,” Messi said, reiterating it will be the last time he will feature at a World Cup.
“It’s most likely my last World Cup and the last opportunity to make my dream a reality. I’m really happy and really excited and I want to try to enjoy this World Cup. I think age as well makes you see things differently. Maybe now I give more importance to small details because before I didn’t do it. I’ll try now to focus more on the details and today enjoying it is more important,” he added.
Having endured a heartbreaking loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, Messi finally lifted his first trophy with Argentina at the 2021 Copa America title. It was Albiceleste’s first trophy in 28 years and since then they have gone on an unbeaten World Cup qualifying campaign, which many suggest is what makes them title contenders in Qatar.
The 2014 run aside, Messi has had a disappointing time at the World Cup with Argentina crashing out in the 2002 group stage, 2006 and 2010 quarter-finals and 2018 round of 16. Messi knows this could very well be his best chance at securing his legacy, which many in his home country believes pales in comparison to the late Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup.
Messi said the burden of winning a trophy for Argentina has reduced after the Copa America title, but said the similarities between current squad and the 2014 one gives him a hope of triumphant last hurrah on the global stage. “Having won decompresses you a lot, it gives you peace of mind,” said Messi.
“This allows the people to be less anxious and fretting over results. I’m not sure we feel better (than before other World Cups) but we just won a competition and that is very reassuring. It helps you work in a different way and you don’t feel as anxious. You don’t put as much pressure on yourself so we focus on enjoying ourselves. The squad reminds me of 2014, very united and clear about what we have to do on the pitch and the way we have to play. It’s great to be here in good form because it gives you so much confidence,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard is looking forward to testing his team against Messi having led Morocco against Portugal and Ronaldo at the last World Cup in Russia.
“It’s an honour to come up against the best players on the planet. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are football legends and thanks to them, football has changed,” said the much-travelled 54-year-old, an Africa Cup of Nations winner with both Zambia and Ivory Coast.
“It’s an honour to be here and an honour to play against them but when you compete you have to put all your energy and motivation into trying to topple the best, that’s what’s beautiful about sport, sometimes you get surprises.”
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