At the age of 26 and with the conditions favorable, the Argentine forward knows this will be his best chance to win soccer's greatest prize.Lionel Messi has been soccer's outstanding player over the last six years and has often been described as the greatest club performer of all time. Yet there is still one thing missing from his glorious career: the World Cup.
The forward has achieved pretty much everything with Barcelona: He's the all-time leading scorer at the Catalan club with 354 goals, he has 21 trophies for the Camp Nou outfit — including three Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups and six Liga titles — and has won four Ballon d'Ors.
Success for his country, however, has never quite matched his feats at the club level. An Under-20 World Cup in 2005 and an Olympic title in 2008 represent a promising return for the youth teams, but he has yet to win anything with the senior side. In order to be considered the best in history, Messi is well aware that he will have to win a World Cup.
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And he will have no better chance than this time around. Currently 26, Messi turns 27 later in the tournament and is at his peak. By comparison, Diego Maradona was 25 (almost 26) when he led Argentina to its last World Cup win in 1986. In addition, this tournament takes place in South America, where European teams traditionally toil. Culturally and climatically, Argentina is at home here, while the close proximity and accessibility mean many fans will cross the border to support the Albiceleste in each of their games.
The relaxed mood at the side's Belo Horizonte base suggests team spirit is also excellent. Messi and his teammates were all smiles in training earlier this week at the city's Estadio Independencia, where not even a number of pitch invaders could dampen the mood. On the contrary, in fact, because Messi saw the funny side as he was faced with a Ronaldinho lookalike desperate to hug him and also gave his shirt to another fan. A day later, at the team's base outside the city, he laughed and joked with the rest of the squad in a lighthearted session. That dynamic has continued all week.
But now, he's raring to go. "I'm very excited about playing at the Maracana for the first time in my life and about starting the World Cup on the front foot," Messi posted on his Facebook account ahead of Sunday's clash against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Rio. "Let's give it everything!"
With a group featuring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, Argentina should progress without too much trouble. As the winner of its group, Argentina would likely face Switzerland or Ecuador in the second round, with Belgium, Russia or Portugal possibly standing in the way of a semifinal spot.
It's an accessible draw for Alejandro Sabella's side and the ingredients are all there for Messi to make his mark. "Let's hope this is Messi's World Cup," said former Argentina captain Juan Pablo Sorin this week. "It is his best chance — and he knows that better than anybody."
Since Sabella took over from previous coach Sergio Batista, Messi has flourished. After scoring 17 goals in his first 61 games for the Albiceleste, he has 21 in 23 under his current coach. Argentina's general manager Carlos Bilardo, who led the team to victory in 1986 and is now an assistant to Sabella, added: "This is Messi's best moment with the national team."
Argentines will hope that moment becomes eternal with World Cup victory on July 13 in Rio. It's pretty much all Messi has left to achieve in his amazing career — but he'll never have a greater chance than now. Over to you, Leo.