World Cup 2022: Why Lionel Messi is now Argentina’s ‘true leader’ – Pablo Zabaleta

host nation: Qatar Events: 20 Nov-18 Nov December Cover: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Daily TV ListsFull coverage details

Nothing is done for Argentina or Lionel Messi.

You all saw the tension and fear we felt during our game against Mexico up to our goal and also the relief after the final whistle after our 2-0 win.

After that there was so much pressure on us We lost to Saudi Arabia and that relief was there for everyone – for the whole team and all our fans here, but especially for Messi.

It would have been a terrible and painful ending Argentina eliminated in what was probably his last World Cup in the group stage.

But we’re not in the last 16 yet. Now we have to win again – this time against Poland – to be sure we can do it.

It won’t be easy and the team still needs to improve a lot, but hopefully we’ll have some confidence after that beat mexico.

And of course we always have Messi. We’ve relied on him so many times in the past and we know we can count on him again in Qatar.

It will be difficult for us to go far in this tournament, we know that. But at least we can dream about this Argentinian team again – and that’s because of him.

‘I know how much the World Cup means to Messi’

I was at the beginning of Messi’s journey with Argentina and I hope so much that he can end it by winning this World Cup.

When I first saw him touch the ball at the U20 team’s first training session together, I knew he was going to be a very special player.

Of course we had heard about Messi at Barcelona before we met him, but that was the first time he played for Argentina. He didn’t say much at the time, but we welcomed him very warmly to the team and quickly realized how good he is.

When he was 17, he came with us to the 2005 U20 World Cup in the Netherlands. I captained Argentina and we won the tournament together – well, it was mostly because of him!

Pablo Zabaleta and Lionel Messi receive their gold medal at the 2008 Olympics
In addition to winning the 2005 U20 World Cup, Zabaleta and Messi won Olympic gold alongside Argentina in 2008 in Beijing

I feel so lucky to have been part of his generation; I enjoyed watching and playing with him and sharing so many moments with him, as a teammate and as a friend.

I know the sacrifices he made and the difficult times he went through. Don’t forget, he was only 13 when he moved to Spain.

I also had to leave Argentina at a young age to further my career – most of our players do – and I know how difficult it was for me to adapt. But I was 20 when I came to Seville while he was still a little boy.

I’m so proud of everything he’s made of his life since then, but I also know how much it means to him to represent Argentina and how much he wants to win football’s greatest trophy with us.

It’s always the same: Messi has to win the World Cup

There’s a lot of love for Messi at home now, but it wasn’t always like that.

After losing the World Cup final in 2014, we lost two more finals – the Copa America in 2015 and 2016.

In Argentina, that’s not enough. For some people and parts of our media, just reaching a final is unacceptable. There was a lot of criticism of Messi because we didn’t win everything like he did with Barcelona back then.

After that he gave up and took some time off from the national team to recharge his batteries, but he quickly realized how important it was to him.

Messi has won everything there is to win in club football, but he really wanted to come back and help us win something too. So it was amazing to see him win his first major trophy at international level the Copa America last year.

We won it by beating Brazil in the maracana, which was very special and I loved how everyone ran to hug Messi after the final whistle.

That win took some of the pressure off him and stopped people from saying he didn’t play for us the way he played for his club – but still people expect so much from him at a World Cup.

It’s like he has to win – always. Nothing else is acceptable.

So I know these tournaments can be a tough time for him mentally, so it’s important that he has the right people around to help him relax.

Argentina celebrates after winning the 2021 Copa America
Argentina celebrate after winning the 2021 Copa America. It was Messi’s first international tournament win at the age of 34.

What has changed? Messi has matured

At the 2018 World Cup I was a pundit on the BBC in Russia and even from afar I could see Messi looking stressed which was really worrying. The squad wasn’t well formed and we were eliminated early.

It was very different in 2014 when I reached the final with him in the Argentine squad in Brazil. He led the team and he loved it.

Before this tournament started, I heard Leo say that there are similarities between the feelings he had then and the atmosphere in the squad today. This is a really good sign because it means that there is the same togetherness and also that he is happy.

Now when I see pictures of the dressing room, I can see how much fun is happening, just like in my day. But there is one big difference: Messi himself.

The images of him delivering an inspirational speech to the team ahead of the 2021 Copa America final was something people had never seen before and showed that he now also has the leadership to take this team to greatness respectively.

When Messi speaks, everyone listens. It was the same in 2014 – only he was always a bit quiet and didn’t say much at the time.

He was our captain but Javier Mascherano really took on that role because of his experience and character. He was the one who was very vocal in the dressing room and used to tear us down before games.

Now it’s Messi himself who is doing it. He’s not only our best player, he’s the real leader of the team – even coach Lionel Scaloni himself said it many times – and he’ll help them through this difficult start in that way too, not just by scoring goals.

It’s great to see. It has been a long road for him to get to this moment. Of course, everyone can switch off the field and learn different things. Messi is more mature now, at 35, has more experience and is a family man – but he’s still a great footballer.

If he wins this world championship he should retire right away because he will have achieved everything possible. There is nothing left for him to win.

Pablo Zabaleta spoke to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar

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