Let us mull, for a moment, on the achievements of Miroslav Klose, as unlikely a hero as the World Cup could possibly muster. He is a gangling, birdlike figure in the most elegant of chorus lines. Out of place and out of time in a world of tiki-taka, Klose sometimes resembles the type of forward who is parachuted into QPR’s team in the second half of next season as Harry Redknapp attempts to squeeze all he can from his limited financial resources in a valiant effort to beat the drop. And yet, by the end of a group stage in which the not-as-tall-as-he-seems German forward will almost certainly be pitted into action against the USA and Ghana, he could very well find himself bearing the title of the all-time leading goalscorer in the most celebrated tournament in world sport. Beginning his international career in a Germany team that has since been utterly transformed, and remaining a central pivot for all that time despite the great shifts in the dynamic around him, this is a lesson in overachievement and defiance of the populist opinion.
The history of pricked expectations hangs heavily over the World Cup. Toto Schillachi was the unexpected hero of Italian football in 1990, yet Roberto Baggio, the most feted player of the subsequent tournament and its shining star for its majority, missed the conclusive penalty to hand the trophy to Brazil. Ronaldo was ready to heave the world onto his broad shoulders in 1998, before suffering an apparent fit in the hours before the final, and handing the initiative to France to clam glory on their home turf. Geoff Hurst notoriously sneaked in front of England’s best striker, Jimmy Greaves, to land a place in the starting XI at the 1966 World Cup. England’s so-called golden generation was a failed experiment in alchemy that left us with little more than a big pile of frazzled-looking base metals. Heightened expectation is all too rarely a means of delivering success in so fickle a landscape as the World Cup.
And so we come to Lionel Messi. It is almost certainly the lack of a World Cup winner’s medal jangling amongst the silverware on his wardrobe door handle that prevents commentators from pronouncing Messi’s name with the same reverential whisper that greets Pele or Maradona (although Messi is granted a much saucier, Roger Moore-style low burr by our smitten pundits).
Expectation has been piled high on Messi because of the astonishing, gatling-gun rate at which he scores goals for Barcelona, yet it has often been noted that he has yet to translate that irresistible form to international level. In the qualifying campaign for this tournament, however, he scored 10 times, only one fewer than Luis Suarez, to take Argentina through at the top of their group. Aged just 26, and with what are generally accepted to be a footballer’s ‘peak’ years still ahead of him, Messi is just 19 goals short of Gabriel Batistuta’s national record of 56. Argentina’s talismanic forward is primed and ready to deliver on the international stage.
It has been 28 years since Argentina last lived up to their potential and lifted the trophy, and that time they had to thank a diminutive, yet dynamic, left-footed forward. But a laboured comparison between Maradona and Messi does not account for the gulf between the personalities of the two. Messi, famously reserved with his public speaking, remains enigmatic in his home country. However, his edging Carlos Tevez out of the squad means that the country will far more look to modern football’s most naturally-gifted looking star to deliver. This looks like a pivotal moment in Messi’s international career. He’s in form for his country, and has received a significant demonstration of support from his national coach. Despite a strong cavalry at his shoulder the hopes of the nation will lie at Messi’s feet. Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequial Lavezzi, Gonzolo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria are all capable of playing the lead, but will be lining up for the ‘best supporting actor’ gongs come awards season.
Argentina’s time out of the spotlight has lasted far longer than it perhaps ought, but the ease with which they qualified could suggest that the intermission is ready to come to an end. Coached by former Sheffield United midfielder Alejandro Sabella, the team sailed through qualifying. With Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria waiting to face them in Brazil, they can also expect a similarly smooth passage into the second round. But while the team’s achievements so far demonstrated the capabilities of a squad of glittering talents, it also heightened expectations. Argentina’s squad stands up to scrutiny against any other in the tournament – but theirs is a team which must overcome its own complacency before any opposition.
Posted by Thom Kennedy