It was symptomatic of the chaos that has followed Argentina on the rockiest of roads to Russia that their final World Cup warm-up match, against Israel, was cancelled amid reported threats to Lionel Messi’s life.
And so, instead of playing at the Teddy Kollek Stadium last Saturday evening, Argentina’s squad flew in to Moscow’s Zhukovsky Airport a day early on a private jet belonging to the Rolling Stones.
Lionel Messi is carrying the hopes of his country on his back
Whether Messi can put on a show that leaves a lasting legacy, or whether coach Jorge Sampaoli’s high-pressing tactics are too adventurous for a side with notable defensive shortcomings, it promises to be a story that engrosses far more than just followers of La Albiceleste.
The stakes are huge, not least for a player whose candidature as the greatest of all time hinges, for some, on what happens over the coming weeks.
An extra-time defeat by Germany in the 2014 World Cup final preceded back-to-back losses to Chile in the Copa America finals of 2015 and 2016 and, for Messi, losing a third final in as many years, and a fourth in nine years, was too much to take.
Argentina supporters were still digesting his penalty miss in that second successive shoot-out defeat by Chile in June 2016 when he announced his international retirement at pitch side. Two months later, he was back, but Messi, 30, has already hinted that he may quit for good if Argentina fall short again this summer. “It will depend how we do, how it ends,” he said.
“Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup and if he doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed,”
It certainly must be strange for someone who has plundered 32 trophies at club level with Barcelona and been named world player of the year on five occasions to be the nearly-man of international football.
Maradona’s shadow looms large for Messi, but the Argentina side that triumphed in 1986 had a much better blend and balance than the current crop. Messi cannot go it alone, but the burden on him is colossal. And yet his relationship with his country remains complex.
The near misses have certainly piqued national frustration and Messi, naturally, is the most obvious target for that.
Some have struggled to identify with the player who left for Spain at 13. His relationship with Argentine society was once described as that of a long lost son reconnected in adulthood with parents who must slowly learn how to relate to their boy again.
At times, though, the criticism has bordered on the gratuitous, not least over his reluctance to sing the national anthem. Such is the hysteria that Messi’s biographer, Sebastian Fest, said it had got to the stage where “it almost amuses him not to sing it”.
What is irrefutable is the adoration with which he is held among the squad. A “win it for Messi” attitude has taken root and that close bond could yet carry Argentina far even if, for all their self-induced problems, they have not been blessed with luck.
Injury robbed them of their first-choice goalkeeper, Manchester United’s Sergio Romero, and there was another setback when Manuel Lanzini, the West Ham United forward, was ruled out of the tournament after rupturing a cruciate knee ligament.
They have also been placed in arguably the toughest group, with games against Croatia and Nigeria, who beat them 4-2 in a friendly last November, following Iceland.
If Argentina are to prevail, Messi must flourish, but the pressure on him is unremitting. “Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup and if he doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed,” Sampaoli said.