Argentine captain Lionel Messi said he was in a great position physically and mentally on the eve of his team’s opening Group C against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, at what is likely to be his last World Cup.
Messi had caused concern over the weekend because he had not shown up for a planned, media-open team training. Because of what the Argentine Football Association described as “muscle overload,” he trained individually on Friday and Saturday.
Fitness concerns had raised questions about whether Messi would play the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia, but he downplayed those concerns when he rarely appeared at a press conference on Monday.
“I feel really good physically, I think I’m having a great moment, both personally and physically, and I don’t have any problems,” Messi said.
“I heard them say I trained differently. It was because I had knocked, but nothing weird [happened]. It was just a precautionary measure,” he said.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game against Saudi Arabia in Doha, the Argentine captain made a remarkably relaxed figure as he repeatedly emphasized how much he enjoys soccer as his glittering career enters its final chapters.
The 35-year-old, who played his fifth World Cup in Qatar, added that he had prepared himself in no other way for the tournament, which will be held for the first time in November and December.
“I didn’t do anything special,” he said.
“I’ve taken care of myself and worked as I’ve done throughout my career. I knew this was a special moment as this would probably be my last World Cup, my last chance to make this big dream come true that I have and that we all have.”
After an unbeaten run of 36 games, Argentina opens their group stage against Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest team in the tournament.
It seems like an ideal opportunity for Messi to postpone his international goals to a century — he currently has 91 — which is certainly an abandoned attempt to reach the leading men’s brand of 117 owned by major rival Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal.
How Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni treats Messi at the opening match at the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium could be instructive given how the captain’s fitness was managed ahead of the World Cup.
Messi may not be needed too long against Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis may have made it through the Asian qualifying rounds relatively comfortably, but they generally have problems at the highest level of soccer, having only made the last 16 once in their five World Cup appearances.
They started the 2018 World Cup tournament with a 5-0 loss to host country Russia.
the other hand, Argentina opened the 2018 World Cup with a disappointing 1-1 draw against tiny Iceland — in a game in which Messi saved a penalty — which immediately put pressure on Albiceleste.
Messi finally wants to win the World Cup in order to strengthen his reputation as arguably the greatest soccer player of all time.
“It’s most likely my last World Cup,” he repeated, “my last chance to make my — our — dream a reality.”
The game against Saudi Arabia will make Messi the first Argentine player to take part in five World Cups, one more than Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.
Under French coach Hervé Renard, the Saudis spent several weeks preparing after national competitions were interrupted so players could focus on the World Cup.
They also received a visit from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who gave a speech to the squad ahead of the tournament.
“It was very positive,” Renard said on Monday.
“It was very important to hear from our leader before he set off for such a great competition,” he said.
“We didn’t just come to this World Cup for fun. We came here to be the best we could do. We hope all Saudis in the stadium will be proud of us, that’s the most important thing.”