MOSCOW – No matter what Lionel Messi does at the World Cup, Diego Maradona will be watching.
With FIFA’s in-stadium cameras cutting to Maradona’s every outsize reaction and the antics of Argentina’s biggest World Cup hero generating breathless media attention, Maradona is an inescapable part of what could be Messi’s final World Cup. He’s sure to be emotional in the stands again on Saturday when Argentina begins the round of 16 against a talented France squad.
Messi’s club career has far eclipsed Maradona’s. He’s a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, has led Barcelona to three Champions League titles and holds a long list of scoring records, including the most goals in a club season – 73 in 2011-12.
But Maradona led Argentina to its last World Cup title, in 1986, and Messi has a reputation – fairly earned or not – for failing to come through for his national team in the biggest moments. Maradona is attending this year’s World Cup as a FIFA ambassador, and he’s the subject of an in-production documentary by Asif Kapadia, director of acclaimed films about Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and singer Amy Winehouse.
Only a championship would allow Messi to fully escape Maradona’s shadow. At 31, an age when many players begin to decline, the pressure on him is immense. And it showed when he missed a penalty kick in Argentina’s opening draw against Iceland. He got his first goal of the tournament in the 2-1 win over Nigeria that put Argentina into the second round.
“I don’t remember ever having suffered as much, with the situation, with what was in play,” Messi said after the victory.
This year’s Argentina team has shown signs of dysfunction and an outsize dependence on Messi, who even appeared to be giving embattled coach Jorge Sampaoli advice about in-game substitutions. Argentina allowed at least one goal in all of its matches, including a dispiriting 3-0 loss to Croatia. Now it must find a way to stifle France, which has a greater variety of attacking talent.
France has its own problems.
The team has lacked cohesion and the offensive stars have yet to shine. Its victories against Australia and Peru were far from decisive. Then France and Denmark kicked the ball around disinterestedly in a mutually beneficial 0-0 draw that allowed both teams to advance.
France has never lost in the World Cup round of 16, making it through in 1986, 1998 (when it won the title), 2006 and 2014.
The teams open the knockout rounds at 7 a.m. PDT, TV: Fox Saturday in Kazan.
Uruguay vs. Portugal
11 a.m. PDT, TV: Fox
Messi’s longtime rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, has not been shy about embracing what could be his final World Cup, scoring four goals and carrying his team to victories in its first two matches. And Messi’s Barcelona teammate, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez – who bit an opponent at the previous World Cup – has shined in Russia while keeping his teeth to himself.
Uruguay’s defense might be a bigger problem for Ronaldo and Portugal when the teams meet in Sochi.
La Celeste have yet to allow a goal, their back line anchored by captain Diego Godin and his Atletico Madrid teammate Jose Maria Gimenez, who missed the squad’s final group game against Russia with a thigh injury. Gimenez has returned to training and could be available to play against Portugal and his familiar Real Madrid adversary.
“We know that in 2018 they haven’t lost any of their six games and didn’t concede any goals,” Portugal right back Cedric Soares said. “That is something to pay attention. It’s a team that has quality.”
The last time Uruguay allowed a goal was in a 4-2 victory over Bolivia in World Cup qualifying last October.
Unlike Messi, Ronaldo has led Portugal to an international title, the 2016 European Championship, and at 33 the fanatically well-conditioned player still appears to have the physical gifts of his youth.
Whether he can break through against Uruguay will determine Ronaldo’s World Cup legacy. But history weighs less heavily on him than on Messi, the benefit of playing for a smaller nation that’s never reached a World Cup final.
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