Messi seeks ultimate prize with World Cup win

Monday, 9 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

REUTERS: After a spectacular haul of trophies with Barcelona, Lionel Messi has a chance to lead Argentina to glory on the World Cup stage and build on his reputation as one of the all-time greats. The four-time World Player of the Year has won a glittering array of club silverware and has established himself as one of the finest footballers to grace the game, but some believe he must win the World Cup before he can be hailed as a true great. Many others believe, at the age of 26 – he turns 27 during the tournament on 24 June – he already has. Messi is inevitably compared with Diego Maradona, who inspired the nation to victory at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and will travel to Brazil with considerable expectation on his shoulders. A lot will depend on how well he copes with the pressure and whether he shrugs off an out-of-character indifferent spell towards the end of the Spanish season. At Barcelona, he was a carefree youngster who came through the youth ranks earning plenty of praise but it never went to his head. He enjoyed playing football, that was his outlet to express himself and his confidence on the pitch was in marked contrast to his generally shy personality. Whether there were millions watching around the world, it didn’t seem to matter to him as he was self-absorbed in outwitting the opposition with his trickery. Now in his mid-twenties and a father to an infant son, he carries the responsibility of being the talisman for Barcelona and he is at a club where the fans worship him for what he has already delivered. It is different story for the Albiceleste. During a fruitful qualifying campaign, when he netted 10 goals, Argentines warmed to him but still Messi has to measure up to Maradona. The former Argentina captain and coach is an idol in his native country as many identify with him, the boy who emerged from the slums and restored national pride, notably with the two goals that knocked out England in the quarter-finals in Mexico in 1986. Messi will never have that connection with the fans, having been brought up in Spain after clubs back home allowed him to slip through their fingers. It was the Catalan side that put their faith in him as a 13-year-old and paid for him to have the growth hormone treatment that he needed to realise his full potential. Coach Alejandro Sabella has built his side around Messi to a far greater extent than his predecessors and now at the peak of his career this could well be his best chance to emulate Maradona and bring the World Cup home. An attack-minded Argentina generally play with Messi alongside close friend Sergio Aguero in attack and Barca team mate Javier Mascherano controlling play in the middle. “The team is looking good and we are getting on well together but in a World Cup anything can happen, it is very difficult,” Messi said in the build-up to the finals. “The games at the World Cup are totally different. First of all the atmosphere is not like anything else. While the Champions League is great, the World Cup is special.” Messi is hoping to be 100% fit in Brazil having had a difficult 2013 due to a series of hamstring injuries. He spent a couple of months on the sidelines before returning in January and this could work in Argentina’s favour as he may arrive fresher than other players. “Apart from the obvious down side, it was good for me physically to have a two month break,” Messi said. “I was very relaxed working at the Argentine FA facilities. Then after that I went home to Rosario and worked hard there as well, so everything was good. “To be home with friends and family, just to be there after so much time, is good for me.”

 Ronaldo relishes Portugal’s underdog status

Reuters: Cristiano Ronaldo finally ended Lionel Messi’s four-year reign as soccer’s best player in 2013 and a starring role for Portugal at the World Cup finals would cap another stellar season for the astonishing forward. The 29-year-old from humble roots on the island of Madeira is now a marketing phenomenon with almost 80 million followers on Facebook. He scooped his second Ballon d’Or award in January despite not winning any silverware with Real Madrid the previous season but did score in last month’s Champions League final to help Real secure their record-extending 10th European crown. While he inspires a mixture of love and loathing among fans of all stripes, few would dispute he is one of the greatest goal-scorers to have played the game. Since joining Real from Manchester United in 2009 for what was then a world record fee of 94 million euros ($ 128 million), Ronaldo has shown incredible consistency and Argentina’s Messi is the only player who has bettered his goals tally in the past five seasons. The sight of Ronaldo sprinting forward on another devastating Real counter-attack or smashing in a free-kick has become as familiar as that of Messi weaving his way towards goal and sliding the ball into the net. Ronaldo is more like a racehorse, galloping past defenders and firing thunderbolt shots from all directions. He became Portugal’s top goal-scorer when two goals in a 5-1 friendly defeat of Cameroon in March took his tally to 49 in 110 games. Despite the deluge of goals, he has sometimes been accused of going missing in the big games and he failed to score against Spain in the round of 16 at the World Cup finals in 2010 or in the semi-finals of Euro 2012. However, after an erratic Portuguese qualifying campaign he single-handedly secured their berth at the finals in Brazil when he netted all four goals over the two legs of their 4-2 aggregate success against Sweden in November’s playoff. Portugal have been drawn with Germany, Ghana and United States in Group G in Brazil and Ronaldo has said he will relish not playing under the same pressure he feels at Real. Portugal’s best result at a World Cup was third on their first appearance in 1966. “We are not favourites which is good for us, it takes out a lot of pressure,” Ronaldo said in March. “We know that Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, they are favourites, which is fantastic for us. But I am quite confident we can do it. We have a difficult group, in my opinion, and we are going to go step by step, game by game. “The first game will be very, very difficult against Germany, but I believe we are going to have a fantastic World Cup, and without pressure, which is amazing.”