Lionel Messi

By Duro Ikhazuagbe in St Petersburg

Argentina’s superstar footballer, Lionel Messi, clocked 31 Sunday. As usual, the Barcelona forward did not celebrate the day in any special way. It was like any other day at the team’s camp base in Bronnitsy, a city about 54km away from Moscow.

Instead of the usual winning and dinning associated with such special days, the Argentine captain had other things on his minds. Messi and his teammates took to the training pitch at the camp base to perfect their game plan for Tuesday’swin or burst Group D last game with Nigeria at the St Petersburg Stadium.

This particular birthday would have been a sad one for Messi. Nothing anybody would have said or done to bring him out of the melancholy that would have enveloped the five-time world best player if Iceland had defeated Nigeria in that game in Volgograd Arena last Friday.

The defeat would have ended the Albiceleste’s quest to qualify from the group to the last 16 stage of Russia 2018. They would have become the biggest casualty of this edition to crash out at this stage. There would have been uproar in Buenos Aires and other major cities of the South American nation.  But Super Eagles did the Argies ‘favour’ dispatching the Nordic country 2-0 through Ahmed Musa’s brace. Moment’s after that victory, the Jorge Sampaoli wards and their country folks erupted in celebration almost the same way Nigerians were in jubilant mood.

Messi’s obsession with winning the World Cup which is the only major silverware missing from his rich trophy chest was back on track. It was understandable for Messi and his colleagues to celebrate the lifeline handed out to them by the Super Eagles. After they were held to a one-all draw by Iceland in their opening game and lost 3-0 scandalously to Croatia, a win or draw for Iceland against Nigeria would have been an automatic exit for Argentina with Croatia leading the group on six points and Iceland having minimum four points. There would have been nothing to play for beyond pride for the Albiceleste. But with Nigeria on three points Messi knows Argentina’s fate is still in their hands as they head to the final game on Tuesday.

“It means so much because for Argentina, the World Cup is special – and for me too. I’ve always had the dream of watching me raise the World Cup. And then seeing the emotion that goes with it.

“My hair stands on end just thinking about that moment. It would make millions of Argentines in the world happy. So we cannot give up on that dream now,” said Messi.

He reiterated his earlier stand not to quit the Beautiful Game without lifting the most coveted prize in global football — the World Cup.

“I have won all the most important tournaments but I am ambitious to the end. I would not like to retire from active football without being a world champion with my country,” stressed the Argentine talisman who was rendered ineffective by a packed Croatian midfield inspired by Luka Modric last Thursday.

Although Argentina has been in turmoil after that defeat against Croatia, signals coming out of the team’s base camp indicate Sunday that things have returned to normal with the players all focused on the clash with the Super Eagles.

Even the Argentine Football Federation (AFA) at the weekend issued a statement dismissing insinuations that Sampaoli was on his way out of the team.

Before training Sunday, Sampaoli congratulated Messi on his birthday without further elaboration. Unless there is a change of plan, senior players in the team like Messi and Javier Mascherano are likely to decide the game plan against Eagles. The dressing room revolt against Sampaoli appears real. Sergio Aguero gave life to this speculation here when he openly dismissed the gaffer’s tactics that failed against Croatia.

Whether Messi will truly have the chance to move on to lift the trophy at this edition before taking a bow depends on the outcome of the clash with rejuvenated Super Eagles on Tuesday. If Nigeria succeeds in flying over the South Americans and berth in the Round of 16, it remains to be seen if Messi will have to wait till Qatar 2022 to try out his luck for the last time.

The Barcelona star who will be 35 years in four years time, may not be as sharp as the phenomenon the world has seen since the petit forward started his trophy collection at the global stage with the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Holland in 2005. Incidentally, it was against Nigeria with Mikel in the team, that Messi picked his first FIFA title. Whether thunder will strike twice depends on the character exhibited by Eagles on Tuesday.