at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London - It is the one glaring omission from an otherwise incomparable medal haul but Lionel Messi is being backed to complete the set at last.
No less a judge than Javier Zanetti has studied his countryman’s state of mind in the build-up to Brazil 2014. He is convinced the Argentina captain is about to add World Cup winner to the countless accolades he has gathered down the years with Barcelona.
As a veteran of 145 international appearances and two World Cups, Zanetti knows better than most how expectation tends to get the better of Argentina on football’s biggest stage - with attempts to add to their World Cup triumphs of 1978 and 1986 ending in failure.
But the hurt is about to end, according to Zanetti, with Messi ending any argument about his right to be considered the greatest player on the planet.
A perception that he underachieves for Argentina has always been held against him but Zanetti, who brought the curtain down on a glittering career at the end of Inter Milan’s latest Serie A campaign at the age of 40, begs to differ. Zanetti said: “For me, Messi is the best in the world, for club and country. There is no-one to touch him. He has already demonstrated that and he doesn’t need a World Cup winner’s medal to prove it. He has won everything with Barcelona and been named Ballon d’Or winner repeatedly. What he does on a football pitch is amazing.”
“No-one should be too surprised if he has dominated for Barca more than he has for Argentina. When you are with the same players every day you develop a telepathic understanding. It’s not so easy when you report every few months and find yourself with players you are not used to playing with.”
“A lot of top players find it more difficult when they turn out for their country but the signs are that we will see the best of Messi in Brazil. He was exceptional in the qualifying campaign. The captaincy seems to be bringing something extra out of him. He has terrific strength of character and has been showing real leadership.”
“He has proved himself captain in the best possible way by inspiring all around him and leading by example, and that is going to stand us in good stead.”
“I can see him having an outstanding World Cup. This stage is made for him. I really do think this could be our time and we will see Lionel lifting the trophy.”
If he does, it will have been a long wait for a nation with such an embarrassment of riches, particularly in attack. Zanetti can’t come up with a reason but is adamant it has nothing to do with any clash of egos.
When it was put to him, through an interpreter, he shook his head and said: “We have always had a terrific group of players from the point of view of unity and wanting the best for our country. Team spirit has never been an issue in all my years with Argentina.”
“You can look for reasons why we have not always done as well as we should but you can never question our desire or togetherness. It is an absolute privilege, pleasure and honour to be picked to represent Argentina and everyone feels the same sense of pride when they pull on the jersey.”
“It is not an easy tournament to win, the World Cup. You need a bit of luck and maybe that hasn’t always gone our way.”
“For instance, Marcelo Bielsa was far and away the best coach I played for. His tactical awareness, preparation, man management, everything was spot on. Yet with him in charge we didn’t make it out of the group in 2002.”
“People always say we are one of the favourites, but that is the paradox.”
If the World Cup becomes the main focus of attention in England for the duration of the finals, Zanetti insists it is nothing compared to his homeland.
“Every time it comes round, the whole of Argentina grinds to a standstill,” he said. “If you think there is a burden of expectation on the England players’ shoulders, you should see what it is like for our boys.”
“It doesn’t matter what has gone before, there is an expectation, almost a demand, that we win it.”
“Football is an integral part of everyday life in Argentina. It is incredibly intense and you feel you have let people down when you come home without the trophy.”
“But we can do it this time. Most people back home expect a front three of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. What an attacking force that is but, for me, it would be just as potent if it was Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio alongside Messi.”
“It is about getting the balance right, and I firmly believe we have players who can be counted on to contribute all over the pitch.”