THE giant posters of football’s modern day stars Sadio Mane, Harry Kane and Virgil van Dijk that hang on the skyscrapers in Doha’s West Bay area overlooked the Khalifa International Tennis Complex where stars of the past took to the pitch for a series of exhibition matches as part of the FIFA Legends Cup.

There is a modern day legend who’s looking to attain eternal greatness at this World Cup in Qatar. Lionel Messi’s name is on everyone’s lips, from cab drivers to restaurant owners; the overwhelming narrative being that the 35-year-old — as the sentimental favourite — will fulfill his destiny here in the desert.

The blazing afternoon sun had given way to cooler winter gusts as the evening approached and that’s when former Argentina internationals arrived on Thursday.

The four — Javier Zanetti, Diego Milito, Maxi Rodriguez and Pablo Zabaleta — had been divided into two teams, South American Panthers and South American Eagles.

It was a glimpse of the past as they played football, inside the tennis complex which had been redesigned into a pitch, but soon enough they were looking to the near future: Sunday, when Argentina and France collide for the World Cup title at the Lusail Stadium.

The fixation remains on Messi, the maestro looking to deliver Argentina’s first World Cup since 1986, when the iconic Diego Maradona led the way. The 35-year-old has already spoken about the final being his last World Cup match and it is therefore his last chance to win the title his nation has been craving for so long. Messi wants it too.

He came close eight years ago in Brazil but couldn’t inspire Argentina past Germany in the final. There remains a feeling that Messi’s longing for the World Cup is driven by the fact that it will elevate him to the same pedestal as Maradona. But former Argentina right-back Zanetti believes Messi is at par with the legendary Maradona regardless of what happens on Sunday.

“Leo is on the same level as Diego,” Zanetti, who was overlooked for Lionel Scaloni — Argentina’s current coach — at the 2006 World Cup when Messi appeared at world football’s greatest stage for the first time.

“This judgment will not change depending on the outcome of the final. I think many people want Messi to win because of what he represents in the world and because of the way he interprets football. Leo deserves it, and the rest of the team are making a great effort to get to that moment. In his role as leader, Messi is making a difference on and off the field.”

Messi has been inspirational for his side throughout the World Cup. He helped Argentina rebound from a shock loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening game and took them through to the knockout stage, where he’s scored in all their three games. He also remains the creative force for Argentina.

“We know him, we know what he’s capable of and that he’s the best player in the world,” said Milito, who was part of the Argentina squad at the 2010 World Cup alongside Messi; when they were knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals. “He’s having an extraordinary World Cup and he deserves it.”

Over the years, Messi has become a reference point for Argentina. He’s had his share of final disappointments, including at the Copa America but last year, he led his nation to that title, which saw Argentina become South American champions for the first time since 1993. Now, he wants to depart by making them champions of the world.

“Leo is the leader and it’s incredible the things he’s doing at the World Cup despite his age,” Rodriguez, who was part of the Argentina side that lost the final in Brazil, told reporters. “He will be sorely missed when he’s not there.”

Unlike Rodriguez, former Argentina full-back Zabaleta played the whole duration of the final against Germany, which they lost in extra time. Comparing Messi of eight years ago to Messi of this World Cup, Zabaleta said his former team-mate had become more of a leader.

“It’s very noticeable,” said Zabaleta, noticing how Messi had reacted after the quarter-final against the Netherlands where he was involved in altercations with Dutch coach Louis van Gaal and striker Wout Weghorst.

“I love how he leads the team, I like to see him angry, more involved in issues that he wouldn’t be involved in before,” said Zabaleta.

“He’s a genius, having the mentality of a winner and he knows his last chance to win the World Cup comes on Sunday. He’s the leader of this new generation, showing the way while keeping up with his personal challenge of winning the World Cup.”

FRANCE QUALITY

Despite the prevalent feeling that Messi’s time has finally arrived at the World Cup, Zabaleta remains wary of the quality France, the defending champions, bring.

Four years ago in Russia, France brought an end to Argentina’s World Cup campaign with a 4-3 win in Kazan in their last-16 tie. “It’s a physical team, quite direct, with a lot of speed on the sides. Their defence is very strong as well.”

If there is one France player who has stood out for Zabaleta, it’s Antoine Griezmann; the France playmaker who has thrived in his redefined role at this World Cup in midfield.

“Griezmann is playing the roles of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema at the World Cup,” noted Zabaleta, referring to the French trio that is out of the World Cup due to injury.

Rodriguez too pointed at Griezmann as the player Argentina would need to control. “Greizmann is a fundamental player, very complete and intelligent,” said Rodriguez. “I hope it’s not his day on Sunday.”

Zanetti, meanwhile, acknowledged the star power France have across the pitch, referring to the breathtakingly-talented Kylian Mbappe, striker Olivier Giroud, and their goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

“I’m worried about Mbappe, Griezmann and Giroud,” said the 49-year-old, a marauding full-back with great defensive attributes in his playing days.

“They also have a great goalkeeper. It’s a very complete and organised team but this is a World Cup final and anything can happen.”

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2022

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