Great to have Messi back leading Albiceleste, but for how long?

The Argentine wants to enjoy playing in national colours for some more time, but it will be a stretch if Scaloni keeps him in 2026 plans

Lionel Messi (Photo: National Herald Archives)
Lionel Messi (Photo: National Herald Archives)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When Leo Messi held aloft the Fifa World Cup trophy at Qatar’s Lusail Stadium last December, it was the perfect culmination of a fairytale – a finish which has eluded so many sporting legends. As he steps onto the pitch once more in a Argentina shirt in their opening qualifier for the 2026 World Cup later today, the fizz somehow seems to be missing this time. 

Three-time world champions Albiceleste take on Ecuador in their first official game at home since winning in Qatar as the South American qualifying race kicks off for the next edition, to be jointly hosted by US, Canada and Mexico. The sight of Messi with a captain’s armband once again, alongwith Angel Di Maria – another of his peers who also decided to come out of  international retirement will certainly evoke cheers from the crowd – but the jury will be out on the magician’s call about his retirement at the international level. 

Ask national coach Lionel Scaloni, a Messi loyalist to the core, and he would be keen to see the inspirational figure make it again in three years’ time. ‘’I think Messi can make it to the next World Cup,’’ the World Cup winning coach had said in January. ‘’It will depend a lot on what he wants and what happens over time, that he feels good. The doors will always be open. He is happy on the pitch, and for us it would be good,’’ Scaloni observed. 

Lionel Messi playing is Los Angeles, California (Photo: I
Lionel Messi playing is Los Angeles, California (Photo: I

There has been often a will-he-won’t-he syndrome when it comes to Messi’s retirement – much like a number of other sporting icons. It was as far back in 2016 when after their shock loss to Chile in the Copa America final, a crestfallen Messi said he was done with the national team. The disappointment was understandable as only in the preceding 2014 World Cup in Brazil, he won the Golden Boot award as the Player of the Tournament but Argentina were pipped at the post by an extra-time goal by Germany in the final. 

The first-ever cup in a gulf country was surely a last chance salon for Messi, now 35, and he did not put a foot wrong in Qatar. It was a smooth ride for Argentina even though a sensational accusation from Luis Van Gaal – the veteran Dutch coach in Qatar – only a day back has created major ripples in the global football community. 

Terming the Argentina-Netherlands quarter final which the Orange Army lost as a ‘premeditated game,’ the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach said the showpiece was rigged to hand over the trophy to Argentina. A claim, from which star Dutch defender and captain Virgil van Dijk promptly dissociated himself: ‘’It is of course his opinion. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion. I do not share the same opinion.’’   

How long, do then, the fans can hope to see Messi in the fabled white-and-blue stripes? If one takes him on face value, he was quite categoric even as late as in June that he had played his last World Cup in Qatar and ‘in principle,’ he does not see himself playing it in three more years’ time.      

The way things have panned out, that does not stop him from revelling in his favourite shirt for some more time – leaving the choice open-ended. This is what Messi had to say soon after winning the cherished trophy on December 18: ‘’I won the Copa America and the World Cup in a short time. I love what I do, being in the national team, and I want to continue living a few more games being a world champion.’’ 

Well, the man whom his fans call the ‘God of football’ looks in fine fettle and had been bamboozling the rival defence in the MLS for Inter Miami so far – scoring 11 goals in as many games with eight assists. His decision, along with that of Di Maria, to continue playing as a world champion for some more time has to be respected as it will only help the national team throughout the qualifying journey. 

Does this, however, mean we get to see him in another World Cup? It will be not be a good idea after being there and done that – even if one is a Messi.!  

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Published: 07 Sep 2023, 3:37 PM