The picture of Ronaldo’s run towards the corner flag, waving his right index finger and flashing a toothy smile, from that celebratory evening in Yokohama hangs like a yellowing diploma on the wall. In twenty years, the collective memory of the world has shrunk to barely minutes if not less. Though a little fresher, but still gradually fading, is the image of Lionel Messi walking dolefully past the World Cup at the Maracana eight summers ago.
The 22nd edition of the tournament, one that was born out of Jules Rimet’s dream in 1930, is now a behemoth and the caravan will breathe the dry desert air of Qatar, for the first time in the Arabian Peninsula. And the sporting question that’s doing the rounds is whether the “winter” World Cup offers Brazil and Argentina an opportunity to break free from the clutches of European hegemony.
The football calendar worldwide has been brought to an abrupt halt mid-season to accommodate the quadrennial event and Europe is not impressed for more than one reason. Europe got snubbed in the last Finalissima, a one-match contest between the Euro winners and the Copa America champions. At London’s Wembley Stadium, Lionel Messi-led Argentina established their superiority beyond question over Italy.
🤯 A 36-match unbeaten run heading into the #FIFAWorldCup 🇦🇷 @Argentina looks like they’re ready for #Qatar2022 https://t.co/RtWGam63fB— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668620528000
The European champions missed out on the Qatar World Cup berth once again, after losing to North Macedonia in the qualifiers. In contrast, Messi, all of 35, is looking to crown his glorious career with the one trophy conspicuously missing from his over-stacked personal museum. The Undisputed is leading an Argentina side to Qatar on a 35game unbeaten streak, which includes the Copa America final that helped him claim the only major continental trophy. They are undefeated since July 2019.
Messi can rewrite the Arabian Nights when December comes. Changes came thick and fast after their Russian campaign where Jorge Sampaoli left Argentina in a mess. The Albiceleste have not lost since their 1-0 Copa America final victory against Brazil at the Maracana, often spoken in providential terms by the believers. Their 3-0 dismantling of Italy showed how much Lionel Scaloni has inspired and improved Arg entina. They have evolved into a team and the plan is not simply to pass the ball to Messi and pray for a miracle.
The Trophy is in Doha 🤩🏆#TrophyTour | @TrophyTour https://t.co/E9PDzhkJye— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668616260000
It was Rodrigo de Paul’s searching ball that uncorked Brazil defence an d the follow-up was provided by Angel di Maria in the Copa America final. Against Italy, Messi did not make the scoresheet. Lautaro Martinez, Di Maria and Paulo Dybala did. Though Scaloni has been fretting over Dybala’s fitness, he still wants him around in Qatar.
Messi guided Argentina through the combative South American qualifiers scoring seven (two from penalties). When things came to a stop in France, with four goals and seven assists across nine competitive club matches, Messi’s red-hot form is sujet brulant in the Paris cafes. “I see him as always…eager to enjoy the World Cup,” Scaloni said. “He knows how to play wearing this jersey.”
Helping Argentina win a major title (the Copa America) after 28-years, 44-year-old Scaloni slowly but surely moved his pieces to strike the balance around Messi. Defence has been the Achilles heel that sank many of his predecessors and Scaloni worked on it to plug the holes. Old warhorse Nicolas Otamendi may be a concern, but Lisandro Martinez, Cristian Romero, Juan Foyth and Nicolas Tagliafico are experien ced enough to handle any storm.
On their way to #Qatar2022 ✈️🇦🇷🇧🇷🇪🇨🇺🇾 Which South American team will go the furthest at the #FIFAWorldCup? https://t.co/lkx8iJVVfQ— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668459638000
Giovani Lo Celso’s injury is difficult to paper over, but Leandro Parades and De Paul have proved their worth with intelligence and vision in the midfield. It would be imprudent to overlook Argentina’s progress under Scaloni and Messi’s second wind may spur the Argentines as Diego Maradona did in 1986.
One permutation shows that the Latin American pair can clash in the semi-finals. That Brazil are entering the tournament as favourites is nothing new. It is a legacy behind left by Pele and for good or bad, anyone wearing the yellow shirt can’t help it.
Coach Tite sparked a worldwide debate after packing his squad with nine attackers. Each one of them is a star in his own right, with Neymar being the master of tantrums and penalties. Among the eight Neymar scored in Brazil’s unbeaten qualifying campaign, four were from the spot. In 2014, he was too young and was literally kicked out of the World Cup in quarters. In 2018, he was coming off an injury. Still his effort was not good enough as the support cast was inadequate.
His fifth #FIFAWorldCup awaits 🇦🇷Will Lionel Messi lead Argentina to glory? https://t.co/2WgBDJ7Pig— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1668351780000
Lessons were learnt the hard way and Tite packed his party with nine goal poachers with proven quality. The team doesn’t look like a one trick pony any more with the emergence of Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, Barcelona’s Raphinha, Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli and Manchester United winger Antony. Juergen Klopp had described Martinelli as a “talent of the century” when he was 18. He has matured into a fearful attacker under Mikel Arteta.
Honestly, man for man, n one among the 32 teams can boast of such an array of flair and talent under one roof. Young and fearless, Tite is sure to unleash them when the Europeans offer him a low-block, parking-the-bus system. The experience of Thigao Silva, not current form though, is a necessary ingredient to keep things calm at the back. With Marquinhos and Eder Militao, they have navigated the quali fication campaign conceding just five in 17 games.
Having familiar foes in Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon in the group stage, it is unlikely Brazil won’t finish as toppers. Belgium may pose a challenge in the quarterfinals, and it will provide Neymar the stage to exorcise the ghost of Kazan where they had burnt their fingers even after having nine shots on target, compared to Belgium’s three.
At 30, it may be Neymar’s best chance to respond to his detractors who, often correctly, called out his childlike petulance and underwhelming displays. Th is time, like Messi, he won’t be the only one carrying the cross.
A beautiful ending to a dream run awaits Messi. For Brazil, the wait for two decades since Yokohama, has been just too long. The stage is set. Will the tide turn?