LUSAIL, Qatar, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Lionel Messi tied Diego Maradona’s number of goals and World Cup appearances on Saturday, but the current number 10 knows that only winning the trophy will finally win him the same undying love of his Argentine compatriots.
In the twilight of a career that unfolds in the shadow of Maradona, who almost single-handedly won the 1986 World Cup, Messi is desperate to also lift the trophy on his fifth and final attempt.
The 35-year-old captain has certainly done his part so far in Qatar, scoring two of Argentina’s three goals.
One was a penalty kick in their embarrassing 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia, the other a signature low to ignite Argentina’s tournament with a 2-0 win over Mexico on the day they equaled 21 World Cup appearances for Maradona and his eight goals.
“Today the World Cup in Argentina begins,” a relieved Messi said afterwards.
Argentines have often found it harder to love Messi than Maradona given his departure for Spain as a child, his more introverted demeanor and, of course, his lack of a World Cup.
But the way he has run to celebrate his goals with the fans in Qatar, in a joyous release from the obvious pressures on him, shows that love is well and truly in the air on both sides.
Messi has arguably had a more productive career than the flamboyant Maradona, whose off-pitch antics and drug problems eventually overshadowed his talents.
Messi is Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer, leading them to Copa América glory last year and has won the Ballon d’Or a record seven times.
At his childhood club, Barcelona, he scored a record 672 goals and helped win 35 trophies, including 10 La Liga titles and four Champions League trophies, before moving to Paris St Germain last year. .
But unless they can convince him to play another World Cup, which he has said he won’t and he may be too old for that anyway, Qatar is his last chance to add the biggest prize to his trophy case.
In truth, Messi and Argentina still don’t look like the best in the world. Against Saudi Arabia, they succumbed to a simple offside trap all too easily, then collapsed defensively for five minutes in the second half to allow two goals.
Against Mexico, they seemed clueless in the first half, out-muscled, thought-out, and overwhelmed in midfield.
Mexican fans hissed in derision and the massive ranks of Argentines shook their heads when early in the second half, at 0-0, Messi lined up a free kick from perfect distance only to miss it and then seconds later connected with a pass. lost. of game
Minutes later, however, normal service resumed with a long, low shot into the net that left the Argentines dreaming of a third World Cup. Thousands of fans stayed long after the end, with flags, banners and shirts with Messi’s face and number.
One showed the great Maradona, who died two years ago at age 60, beaming down on Messi from the sky. The other showed the two walking into the sunset, each holding a World Cup.
The dream is still on.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Additional reporting by Hritika Sharma; Edited by Ken Ferris
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