Javier Mascherano believes that Lionel Messi is the key to Argentina’s World Cup campaign – but warned he and his team-mates must do everything to help him succeed in Russia.
The former Barca player will play in his fourth World Cup finals in 2018, and in May picked up his 143rd international cap to draw level with Javier Zanetti as Argentina’s appearance record holder.
Perhaps nobody knows Messi as well as his predecessor as Albiceleste captain after more than a decade playing together with Argentina and Barcelona, and he knows the nation’s chances depend on his talent.
“One wishes for this coming World Cup that Leo can be the best version of himself, because the aspirations of the whole squad depend on this version,” the midfielder explained to the Guardian.
“It’s clear Leo conditions our collective performance; I hope as his team‑mates we can meet his standards.”
Only a wonderful Messi hat-trick against Ecuador in the final round of qualifying sealed Argentina’s place in Russia after a chaotic campaign that saw Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli on the bench.
Mascherano recognises that morale suffered badly on the path to the World Cup but he hopes now that those dark days are behind them.
“It all started off really badly with a defeat to Ecuador at home, then we went to Paraguay and drew,” he recalls.
“When we thought we might be able to make the jump, in the matches against Brazil, Colombia and Chile, an actual team started to appear, that’s when we went to the other Copa América in the US [the 2016 Centenario edition, with the final staged in New Jersey], and ended up changing manager.
“After Tata [Martino] everything descended into chaos. Because we weren’t getting the results, because we were so needy, so lacking… because we changed manager again after that. There was such a sense of urgency.
“We were so close to the edge … one match away from not qualifying for the World Cup, it was a Calvary.
“Those of us who have been around for some time have seen the good times and the bad, facing up to the task and doing what’s needed along the way … luckily we’ve come through.”
After seeing their last friendly match scheduled for Saturday against Israel cancelled due to security fears, Argentina will next be in action on June 16 as they open their World Cup against newcomers Iceland – “a new team in the sense that they maybe don’t have a long football tradition but they’re a generation of players that have made history recently”, in Mascherano’s words.
They will then take on Croatia in Group D before closing the first round against Nigeria.