FIFA World Cup 2018: No Lionel Messi and no Cristiano Ronaldo?
Brazil is the go-to team for an overwhelming majority of my countrymen when it comes to the FIFA World Cup. But Argentina is arguably the second most widely supported international team, as far as Pakistani football fans are concerned.
So with a very heavy heart, I am sad to announce that La Albiceleste, after a goalless drawn match against Peru, are at risk of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1970. Come to think of it, that was even before than most of us were born. Moreover, their failed qualification would be the first time in our lifetime that we would not be able to watch the ‘blue and white stripes’ gracing a world cup stage.
If the aforementioned information has still failed to make an impact, how about the fact that Lionel Messi, the most iconic player of his generation and quite possibly of all time, would be a no-show for this event. And at 30, you also need to absorb the cold hard stat that Russia 2018 may be his last FIFA World Cup. It is almost unthinkable but it could very well happen.
Only the top four teams from the South American Football Confederation are guaranteed a place at the 2018 event and with just one game left, Argentina are ranking sixth with 25 points in the 10-team CONMEBOL group. The fifth placed side, currently Peru, qualify for a play-off against Oceania champions, New Zealand.
The match against Peru was typical of so many Argentina matches in the Messi era. Despite a dominating possession in front of a boisterous 49,000 capacity home crowd at Boca Juniors’ fabled La Bombonera stadium, La Albiceleste failed to find a way through Los Incas’ resolute defence.
In hindsight, Argentina’s coach Jorge Sampaoli’s bold decision to play debutante Dario Benedetto and Alejandro Gómez in front of Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi turned out to be a total disaster. And that was after Messi had one of his better games for the country. The diminutive playmaker took two shots, with one of them hitting the post. He succeeded in seven of his 12 dribble attempts and created six shots for his teammates.
Sampaoli tried to sound upbeat following the stalemate and said,
“Our situation is not very comfortable, but it depends on us. I remain confident we’ll be in the World Cup. It would really be unfair if a group that put it all out there like they did does not advance. Throughout the game, we had a marked advantage against them but we could not break through.”
Argentina’s draw sets up a nail-biting South American group finale this week, with only two points separating third-placed Chile and seventh-placed Paraguay. Every team between third and seventh could claim the automatic qualification spot based on results elsewhere on the continent.
But Messi’s XI is in more danger than others, considering they face the threat of Ecuador in Quito during the final round of matches on Tuesday night.
Bear in mind that La Albiceleste have lost two out of their last three World Cup qualifiers in the Ecuadorian capital while drawing the other. You actually have to go back 16 long years to dig out Argentina’s last World Cup qualifier away win against La Tricolor at 2,850 meters in Quito.
So while we lament the potential loss of Messi from the showpiece event in Russia, we also need to brace ourselves for the fact that his arch nemesis could also join him in missing the FIFA World Cup.
With the only group leader assured of an automatic qualification from the UEFA section, Ronaldo and company face the real threat of finishing second and navigating a potentially tricky play-off tie in order to qualify for Russia 2018.
Back in South America, Brazil, the only team to have played in every World Cup since the first tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930, have already qualified for Russia, 10 points clear at the top with 38 points, while Uruguay (28) need just a draw from their final game against Bolivia to advance.
May the best team win.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.