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

Last Updated on November 30, 2022 by

Nothing has been done to Argentina or Lionel Messi yet.

You all saw the tension and fear we suffered in our game against Mexico until we scored a goal, and the relief in the final match after our 2-0 victory.

There was a lot of pressure on us after losing to Saudi Arabia and that relief was for everyone – for all the players and all our fans here, but especially for Messi.

It would have been a bittersweet ending to see Argentina knocked out at the group stage in what is likely to be their last World Cup.

We’re not even into the last 16 yet. Now we have to win again – this time against Poland – to make sure we go through.

It won’t be easy, and the team still needs to improve a lot, but hopefully we have confidence after beating Mexico.

And we always have Messi, of course. We have relied on him many times in the past, and we know we can rely on him again in Qatar.

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

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

'I know how much the World Cup means to Messi'

I was there at the beginning of Messi’s journey with Argentina and I hope he can finish it by going to the World Cup.

Ever since I saw him touch the ball in the first training session with the U20 team, I knew he would be a special player.

Of course we have heard about Messi in Barcelona before we met him, but this is the first time he came to play for Argentina. He didn’t say anything at the time, but we welcomed him to the team and quickly realized how good he was.

He came with us to the Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands in 2005 when he was 17. I was the captain of Argentina and we won the tournament together – well, that’s mostly down to him!

I am very happy to have been a part of his era; to enjoy watching and playing with him and I shared many moments with him, as a teammate and partner.

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

Also, I had to leave Argentina at a young age to move on with my life – most of our players do – and I know how hard it is to adjust. But I was 20 years old when I entered Seville while he was a small boy.

I am very proud of everything he has done with his life since then, but I also know how much he means to represent Argentina, and how he wants to win the biggest trophy in football with us.

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

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

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

After losing the World Cup in 2014, we lost the last two games – Copa America in 2015 and 2016.

In Argentina this is not enough. For some people and some parts of our social media, getting to the finals is unbelievable. There was a lot of criticism for Messi because we didn’t win anything like he did against Barcelona at that time.

He gave up after that and took a break from the national team to recharge, but he quickly realized how important it was to him.

Messi has won everything he needs to win in football, but he is very eager to come back and help us win something. So it was surprising to see how he won his first major trophy at the international level, in the Copa America last year.

We won by beating Brazil in the Maracana, it was something special, and I was happy that everyone ran to Messi in the final to hug him.

This victory put a little pressure on him, and it stopped people from saying that he didn’t play for us like he did at his club – but still people expect a lot from him in the World Cup.

As if he had to win – always. Nothing is acceptable.

So, I know it can be difficult for him mentally in these competitions, which is why it is important to have the right people around him to help him relax.

What has changed? Messi has matured

What has changed? Messi has matured

At the 2018 World Cup, I was a BBC correspondent in Russia, and even from a distance, I could see Messi was worried, which was a concern. The players were not good and we were outplayed early.

It was very different in 2014 when I was with him in the Argentina team that reached the final in Brazil. He leads the team, and he loves it.

Before the start of this competition, I heard Leo saying that there is a similarity between how he felt then and the situation in the team now. This is a really good sign because it means that there is unity, and that he is happy.

When I see pictures of the dressing room now, I see a lot of things happening, just like it did in my time. But there is one big difference: Messi himself.

The footage of him giving a motivational speech to the team before the 2021 Copa America final is something people have never seen before, and it shows that he now has the leadership qualities to lead this team to something big.

When Messi speaks, everyone listens. It was the same in 2014 – but he was quiet and didn’t say much then.

He was our captain but Javier Mascherano took that role instead, because of his experience and character. He was the one who talked a lot in the dressing room, preparing us before the games.

Now, Messi himself is doing it. He is not only our player, he is the true leader of the team – even coach Lionel Scaloni said it himself many times – and he will help them in the beginning of this difficult situation in this way, not only by scoring goals.

It’s good to see. He had a long journey to this point. Of course, everyone can change from the field and learn different things. Messi is now, at 35, more mature, more experienced and a homebody – but he’s still an amazing footballer too.

If he wins this World Cup then he should retire immediately to get all possible. Nothing will stop him from succeeding.

Pablo Zabaleta talks to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar

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