'Messi's last chance to become a God': Argentina fans on the 2018 World Cup
Argentina put their fans through agony on their way to securing their place in Russia. We went to Buenos Aires to endure and enjoy it with them
Argentina are playing Russia on Saturday afternoon in the Luzhniki Stadium. The game is only a friendly but it will give Jorge Sampaoli and his players a chance to size up the ground that will host the World Cup final next summer. In nine months’ time, on 15 July 2018, they will hope to be back on that pitch in front of 81,000 fans winning the one match that matters more to their country than all others.
Argentina were beaten finalists in Brazil in 2010, a performance deemed disappointing by a country obsessed with winning its first World Cup since 1986, but they nearly missed out on Russia altogether. Six weeks ago, with just two qualifiers left to play, they were fifth in their group and in danger of missing the finals for the first time since 1970 – the year Brazil conquered the hearts of the world. The mood in Buenos Aires was not good.
“It’s a national tragedy,” said a typically agitated fan. “It’s the minimum standard we expect from these guys. Twenty-two fucking millionaires who play in Europe for European teams and the only thing we ask is to deliver for the national team. That’s it.”
The whole squad was taking flak but a special kind of anger was reserved for one man: their best – and richest – player. “Where is Barcelona? It’s in Europe. It’s a different city in a different country. He made all those fans happy but not us. We want him to win for us. If he’s the best player in the world for Barcelona but never delivers for us, it’s the same as nothing. Heaven or hell; there is no middle ground. No shades of grey: black or white. Truly, this is Messi’s last chance to win a World Cup: the last chance he has to be a legend; the last chance he has to be a national hero; the last chance he has to achieve Jesus Christ status.”
In a country where football is a religion, it seems strange that Lionel Messi is not worshipped by his countrymen. He has won four European Cups, eight league titles, five Ballons d’Or and three Club World Cups, but only one thing counts in Argentina: winning the World Cup. As far as Argentinians are concerned, the only statistics that matter are: Maradona 1-0 Messi. Diego Maradona has won the World Cup and, for that reason alone, he is worthy of worship. One fan we met explained like this: “I get a call one night at 3am in the middle of the night. My friend says: ‘Merry Christmas.’ I’m like: ‘Go fuck yourself, we’re in October.’ He says: ‘Think about it. It’s the god of football’s birthday.’ I realise it’s true and say: ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Argentina fans can look forward to this Christmas with some hope as they know they will be at the World Cup next summer. Messi scored a hat-trick in their final qualifying match against Ecuador to carry them to Russia. Of course, if he doesn’t lift the trophy at the Luzhniki Stadium next July it will mean nothing. But, if he can emulate what Maradona did in 1986, he too will become a god. Heaven or hell; there is no middle ground.