BUENOS AIRES • Lionel Messi will take a break from his Barcelona soap opera as he bids to fire Argentina to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and what will probably be his last chance to try to win the coveted trophy.
The 33-year-old, a record six-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, has won everything in the club game with Barcelona several times over but his international trophy cabinet looks bare in comparison.
“The only goal I have now is to win the World Cup with the national team,” he has said.
The closest he has come was as losing finalist against Germany in 2014.
The South American World Cup qualifiers start today and the clash with Ecuador gives him the chance to start building towards one last tilt at that goal.
He will be 35 by the time the Qatar World Cup ends, and will turn 39 during the following global showpiece in North America.
In the meantime, he has a pair of qualifiers – Argentina also travel to Bolivia next Tuesday – to distract him from his club travails.
Messi tried to force his exit from the Catalan giants in the close season but Barca held firm and a €700 million (S$1.1 billion) release clause ensured he remained, albeit grudgingly.
Playing Ecuador in his homeland may provide a welcome respite but it is also fraught with potential pitfalls. Five years ago at the start of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Ecuador stunned Argentina 2-0 at River Plate’s iconic Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires.
It took a hat-trick by an inspired Messi in Argentina’s final qualifier two years later – away to Ecuador – to send the two-time world champions to Russia.
Today’s match will be in another iconic stadium: Boca Juniors’ Bombonera. But it will be a surreal experience in an empty ground that would normally be bouncing with some of the most passionate fans in the world. Covid-19 has put paid to any hopes of a paying public.
This is a much-changed Argentina from that which disappointed at the last World Cup.
Young coach Lionel Scaloni embarked on an ambitious regeneration of the squad following the abject last-16 exit from Russia.
However, alongside his “new guard” remain several old hats, like Messi.
“We can say that there are seven or eight ‘memory’ players that are the foundation,” said Scaloni, 42, pointing out that with “only one day of preparation”, they would need the experienced heads to help the team.
He will be without injured Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero while Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel di Maria has been left out.
One player competing to lead the line is Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos.
“He’s strong, technical and scores goals, and also helps in the defensive phase,” said Scaloni, who will have to also choose between Paulo Dybala of Juventus and Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez.
It has been a turbulent period for Ecuador, who will be led by Argentinian Gustavo Alfaro in his first job as a national team coach after Jordi Cruyff quit without ever leading the team.
Cruyff, the son of late Dutch legend Johan, was hired in January but football was suspended due to Covid-19 before he could take charge of his first match and he subsequently resigned in July.