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As expected, Messi was the name that first came up when Heimir Hallgrimsson sat down to address the pre-match press conference at the Spartak Stadium. The Iceland coach claimed he is not losing sleep over the prospect of facing Messi’s Argentina in their maiden Cup match. No one believed him. For, no one sleeps well when Lionel Messi is to take the field the next day at the opposite end.
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“I do not have any magic formula to quell the danger called Messi. Many coaches have tried various tactics and formations and Messi has still managed to score. But it would be unfair to put an agent to shadow him. We will not be doing that,” said the Iceland coach.
Argentina’s ‘visa’ to Russia was literally stamped by Messi. An underwhelming South American qualifying campaign found the Albiceleste at the swing door, when Messi came up with a hat-trick against Ecuador to convince the immigration officials.
What followed in the warm-up games – under coach Jorge Sampaoli – wasn’t encouraging either. Spain plugged half a dozen goals past the hapless Argentines as Messi watched from the Wanda Metropolitano stands in Madrid.
Forever under the burden of Diego Maradona’s World Cup-winning effort in 1986, the best Messi could do was in Brazil, four years ago. Playing every minute in the seven-match campaign, Messi had to walk past the World Cup trophy after the final at the Maracana, defeated, dejected and forlorn.
Criticism and backlash followed, with some even calling him a traitor back home. Still, Messi did not have the choice of saying, “Forget it. I am done playing for Argentina.” He tried it once, but the same outraged public went into mourning. Messi is someone who cannot let his fellow Argentines down. He donned his blue and white shirt again and picked up the captain’s armband.
The Spartak Stadium offers a message to Messi. A 25-metre high statue of Spartacus, standing on a giant football, towers over the entrance of the stadium. When the Argentina team bus drives past the statue on Saturday afternoon, the symbol of struggle will not be lost on Messi.
The story of Spartacus, the slave gladiator who rebelled against the Romans, has been told and retold for 2000 years. Even though his army was eventually crushed, his legend lives on. Parallels are far too stark to overlook and the image is too provocative. Russia 2018 will certainly be Messi’s final tilt. He knows how to reach the finals. He has reached three in the recent past – World Cup and Copa Americas — and lost.
On Saturday, the clash of two sub-cultures will unfold. One armed with a footballing history as old, or even older than the World Cup itself; the other, ready to place the first brick, hoping a huge edifice will come up some day.