x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Big-match venue has Messi feeling right at home

Lionel Messi was allowed to miss his club's first league game of the season to prepare for his country's vital World Cup qualifier against arch rivals Brazil in Rosario tomorrow.

Lionel Messi swerves past his coach, Diego Maradona, during training for tomorrow's World Cup match against Brazil.
Lionel Messi swerves past his coach, Diego Maradona, during training for tomorrow's World Cup match against Brazil.

Lionel Messi has enjoyed returning to his roots this week. Barcelona's Argentinian striker was allowed to miss his club's first league game of the season against Sporting Gijon to prepare for his country's vital World Cup qualifier against arch rivals Brazil in Rosario tomorrow. Like Che Guevara, Messi was born in Argentina's second city with a million inhabitants, located 180 miles north west of Buenos Aires. Famed for its nightlife, Messi reckons it is the best city in the world, though the diffident young man rates it for different reasons.

"I was a happy child with a loving family," Messi says. "I was always with a football at my feet. I hated losing. I would fight if I lost. I would play in the street with bigger boys and in the house. I still have a football in my house and it's my instinct to touch it. My dad bought me a football when I was very young, my grandmother too." Messi has been mobbed this week. He is adored in Rosario, but he has not locked himself away, instead choosing to visit the old friends he left behind when he moved to Spain at 13, his old football coaches and family.

Rosario is a football town, with Newell's Old Boys and Rosario Central among Argentina's biggest clubs and famed for their rivalry and passionate fans. No rivalry is as significant, however, as that between South America's footballing superpowers. Together they have won seven World Cups and produced arguably the two greatest players of all time. "I want a great game," said Messi yesterday. "It will be difficult because Brazil have some great players, but then so do we. We're ready for the game."

Diego Maradona's Argentina have slipped to eighth in Fifa's world rankings, one place below England and well down on the first place they occupied last year - though they looked impressive when beating Russia in Moscow last month in a friendly. Brazil are top of the world rankings and their 1-0 scoreline in Estonia last month extended their unbeaten run to 17 matches as they notched their ninth successive win.

The Brazil coach, Dunga, insists his playing rivalry with Maradona will have no bearing on the game. Both players captained their countries to World Cup wins and also played against each other in Italia 90, but the game marks their first clash as coaches. "We each had our history as a player and we are now taking steps as coaches," said Dunga. On the pitch, the pair could not have been any different. Dunga was a defensive midfielder while Maradona was a creative forward, but the Brazilian said that was also irrelevant.

"Football with 11 Maradonas would not work, football with 11 Dungas wouldn't work," Dunga said. "Each one has his characteristics and way of being, completely different from the other. I'm not concerned about the others, I'm concerned with the Brazilian national team." Maradona, who received a red card against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, has stressed the differing styles of the two teams. "They're the ones who play the joyous and attractive football, while we're known for our gutsiness and having very good players," he said. "I'd say that neither is better than the other - there we both are, level-pegging. It's a South American derby which compares to the final of the Champions League or European Championship.

"That said, neither side does the other any favours. If they say Kaka won't play then we don't believe them, and if we say Messi will miss out, Dunga won't believe us - that's how it works. You get nothing for free." A half fit Maradona got revenge as a player when Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 on the way to winning the 1990 World Cup final, despite being outplayed. "It was marvellous," said Maradona. "Brazil had a great team and they had us on the back foot the entire game, but the one chance I had I undid them. I beat Alemao and Dunga for pace, then got my body between him and the ball and stopped him bundling me over."

He hopes for a repeat result and how Argentina need it - they are fourth in the group of 10 with qualification for South Africa far from assured. amitten@thenational.ae