Lionel Messi’s 31st birthday this weekend is an ominous reminder Russia may be his last World Cup and final chance to emulate fellow Argentine great Diego Maradona in lifting the ultimate prize.The diminutive Argentine captain known as “La Pulga” (The Flea) has won every club accolade imaginable with Barcelona, but has agonizingly missed out on international trophies both at the World Cup and Copa America.For many Argentines, that means while he may be the world’s best player currently, Messi has not entered the same pantheon as Maradona “El Pibe” (The Kid) who won the 1986 World Cup.With Argentina looking dysfunctional and under-performing throughout the qualifiers, Messi’s dream of matching Maradona in Russia always looked a tall order.But it became harder in the 64th minute of Argentina’s opener when his tame penalty was saved by Iceland’s goalkeeper – watched inevitably by Maradona who had lapped up adoring cries of “Dieeeeego!” beforehand.Though Maradona, 57, consoled Messi that even he too once missed five consecutive penalties and the 1-1 draw with Iceland was a collective failure, the signs are bad.”Look, I love Messi, we all do. But it’s just not working out for him internationally,” said Guillermo Aguirre, strolling round Nizhny Novgorod as Argentine fans began to arrive for Thursday’s game against Croatia.
“I want to see him lift the cup so the Maradona debate can be ended because it’s not fair on him. But if I’m realistic, Brazil was the best opportunity,” added Aguirre, in reference to Argentina’s 1-0 defeat by Germany in the 2014 final.
Some expect Messi to exit international football after Russia, after his aborted “retirement” in the aftermath of a devastating penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the 2016 Copa America where he again missed from the spot.