Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Lionel Messi still topping the scale of stardom ahead of the Desert Clasico

Barcelona legend still yearns for success with his country as he faces up to Brazil's teenage prodigy Rodrygo

Lionel Messi is still the main man for Argentina, and they want him to remain that way until the next World Cup. Reuters.
Lionel Messi is still the main man for Argentina, and they want him to remain that way until the next World Cup. Reuters.

Just before Argentina’s players departed their brief training camp in Mallorca, bound for today’s meeting with Brazil in Riyadh, they allocated individual public duties. Fans wanted selfies and autographs, the footballers wanted to oblige, but in an orderly way. So they drew lots, democratically.

All the members of the squad wrote their names on a piece of paper, a handful to be drawn out to see who would go on parade. But the system was weighted. Lionel Messi had four slips of paper with his name on, Sergio Aguero three, acknowledging there is a climbing scale of stardom and that people who want a photo to keep forever or a shirt signed tend to have the same favourites. It was a reminder to Messi, that after an enforced four-month absence from international engagements, more is demanded of him than anybody else.

Meanwhile, for Brazil, assembling and training in Abu Dhabi ahead of the so-called ‘Desert Clasico’, there was a new, fresh clamour. The player they pushed to the foreground, to reveal a little of himself to public and media, was Rodrygo, uncapped. At 18, he is 14 years younger than Argentina’s captain, but has made a sensational impact with Real Madrid this month. As he prepares for his Brazil debut, he is entitled to project ahead, to a career that might take him to four, even five World Cups if he builds on his potential.

Messi’s latest comeback is not from international retirement, as it was in 2016, when his country shuddered at his announcement that playing for Argentina had become more wearying than fulfilling, and lobbied frantically to bring him back. This last retreat was caused by suspension, after Messi, sent off in the third-place play-off at the Copa America in July, angrily accused the South American Confederation of ‘corruption’.

Brazil, the hosts, went on to win the tournament, and, once again, Messi spent a summer dwelling on the fact that, wherever he goes with Argentina, he comes back without the medal he wants, something to set next to his multitude of trophies with Barcelona.

Not since a 21-year Messi won the Olympics with a predominantly under-23 side has he won a major tournament with his country, a second place at the 2014 World Cup and two Copa America finals lost on penalties the most tantalising shortfalls.

The plan for making amends for that now approaches its end game. Messi turns 33 in June, 12 days into the next Copa America, which Argentina are co-hosting. There will be many afternoons there that Messi spends volunteering selfies and autographs as he chases perhaps his last chance to become a South American champion.

Then, in almost exactly three years from now probably the last Messi World Cup, in Qatar, kick offs. He will be 35, and if the player, Barcelona and Argentina carefully manage his energies, he will bearing the same weighty expectations as he has for the last 14 years.

It is not a desperado belief that persuades his countrymen that Messi might still deliver a World Cup for his country, because they have watched him grow into his thirties and still add new dimensions to his brilliance. If the pace of his runs fades, the effectiveness of his use of a dead-ball grows. If he covers less ground in 90 minutes that he once did, he has better mastered the art of when to pause to gain a yard on his marker. Messi is not immortal, but the statistics say there is no evidence yet of decline.

Messi was 18, like Real Madrid’s Rodrygo, when he was first picked for Argentina - an inauspicious debut, as it turned out, with a red card after 65 minutes - and, like Rodrygo, he had been propelled to his first cap after only a handful of senior games for his Spanish club. Messi had played seven times for Barca when he made his made his Argentina bow in 2005. Rodrygo, signed from Santos this year, has played six matches for Madrid.

The difference is that Rodrygo scored a hat-trick in his first Champions League match at the Bernabeu last week; Messi was fully 19 and three-quarters when he scored the first of his 52 career hat-tricks. Rodrygo has already had a €45m (Dh 180m) transfer fee paid for him, and probably heard more comparisons, based largely on the club he plays for, with Cristiano Ronaldo than the prodigious Messi had with Diego Maradona at the same age.

Next month, the Madrid wonderboy and the Barcelona grandmaster will confront one another in a Spanish superclasico. Tonight, they should share a pitch for the first time, in the greatest of South America’s duels, the younger man wondering if he might just be one of those whose photo and autograph is in high demand come the next World Cup.

Updated: November 14, 2019 04:47 PM

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