‘Who knows if there isn’t another one after this,’ says Argentina full-back Nicolas Tagliafico of this being Leo Messi‘s last attempt at winning the World Cup.
It’s a nice idea – Messi at 39 competing in the 2026 tournament. But speaking before Argentina’s opener against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday Messi confirmed this will be his last – it’s a good job he and the team are both flying then.
Argentina have now gone 35 games without losing and that run includes a 1-0 victory over Brazil that won them the Copa America last year.
Qatar will mark Lionel Messi’s fifth, and his final, World Cup tournament 16 years after his first
Coach Lionel Scaloni had no intention of staying in charge when he took over temporarily just to ‘help out’ after the disappointment of the last World Cup.
But it turns out his lack of experience – he had never managed before beyond Argentina’s Under-20s – didn’t matter.
And it also turns out that winning that first trophy for his country, under Scaloni’s quiet leadership, has left Messi looker fresher than ever. Perhaps that’s why Tagliafico mischievously suggests he could go on four more years.
‘Argentina had been a long time without winning anything,’ he says of last year’s Copa America victory.
‘That win wasn’t just good for the people, it was good for us. For Leo, for [Angel] Di Maria who have played a lot of finals with Argentina but had not been able to win one. In terms of the mood around the squad it was the best thing that could have happened.’
The 35-year-old made his debut in the competition at the 2006 tournament in Germany
Does Messi still need a World Cup, however, to go down as the all-time greatest?
‘I think Leo is the greatest,’ Tagliafico says. ‘Greatest ever? I don’t know because I never saw Diego play, nor Pele.
‘It’s true that there are people who say that to be on the same level as Diego he has to win a World Cup but I’ve been told about so many great players such as Johan Cruyff who couldn’t win a World Cup so I don’t believe that.
‘Hopefully he can win a World Cup and we can end, once and for all, this myth that he has to win one to be like Diego.’
For years the argument about Messi being inferior to Maradona didn’t just focus on the absence of a World Cup. It also centered on him being distant and aloof, not a player’s player, and much less a man of the people like Maradona.
Messi claimed his first major international honour when Argentina won the Copa America in 2021
‘He can seem from the outside to be reserved, shy even, but when you get to know him he’s a normal guy and you can talk to him about anything,’ Tagliafico says. ‘I sometimes think he doesn’t realise just how huge he is and what he means in the world of football. He seems so normal it’s as if he doesn’t realise it himself,’
One thing he does believe Messi has realised, is just how precious every game he plays for his country is.
‘I think he has started to see that it is not something that is going to last forever and that he had to enjoy it,’ Tagliafico says. ‘And the fact that he is a father and he has sons he ends up thinking: I have to play for them, not the people.
‘Because I think before, he had the weight on his shoulders of: I have to win something for Argentina. And perhaps the change comes when he realises that he has to try to win for his sons and enjoy it a bit more.’
Nicolas Tagliafico says that nearing the end of his career has made Messi appreciate his time with the national team
The reaction in Argentina to winning the Copa America last year did not surprise him Tagliafico.
‘Perhaps in other countries you have 30 or 40 per cent of the population who like football and the rest prefer another sport or they aren’t interested,’ he says.
‘Here I can assure you 80 per cent of the population live for football. When we came back with the Copa America trophy the country was in the pandemic but there was a huge street party. Everyone was so happy.’
The flipside of the passion is the pressure that some of the nation’s football fans pile on the team – which brings the conservation back to the demands on Messi to match Maradona.
‘It seems crazy now that there were people who criticised Leo because he couldn’t win a final, never mind that he had reached four finals like that is something easy!’ says Tagilafico arguing that the tide of opinion is turning.
‘People have learned. His critics ended up regretting having criticised him after the Copa America win. We all learn.’
Lionel Scaloni stopped short of acknowledging his team as favourites but is full of confidence as Argentina prepare for their first game of the tournament
He has learned too. He says that during the last World Cup – his first – he was guilty of looking too far ahead and before he knew it Argentina had been knocked out by France in the last-16.
‘When you start thinking: if we do this and then that happens in that group, that’s when everything changes,’ he says.
‘That was something that really surprised me at the World Cup 2018. You expect certain things and they don’t end up happening. The more we concentrate on the here and now the better.’
And he refrains from even using the F-word for all that it seems an obvious label to put on his team.
‘The run that we have been on, and winning the Copa America, all that is in the past,’ he says. ‘I’m sure we are going to compete but we don’t have to put extra pressure on ourselves by saying we are the favourites.’