Argentina captain Lionel Messi has said he is in a great place physically and mentally ahead of his team’s Group C opener against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in what is probably his last World Cup.

Messi had caused the alarm this weekend by not showing up for a scheduled team training that is open to the media. He trained individually on Friday and Saturday due to what the Argentine Football Association described as ‘muscle overload’.

Concerns about fitness had raised questions about whether Messi would play the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabiabut he downplayed those concerns when he made a rare appearance at a press conference on Monday.

“I feel really good physically, I think I’m in a great moment both personally and physically and I don’t have any problems,” said Messi.

“I heard they said I trained differently. It was because I knocked but there is nothing strange going on [happening]. It was just a precaution,” he said.

Argentina's Lionel Messi during training.
Lionel Messi of Argentina during training at Wembley Stadium, London, United Kingdom in 2022 [File: Peter Cziborra/Reuters]

The captain of Argentina made a remarkably relaxed figure ahead of Tuesday’s game against Saudi Arabia in Doha, as he repeatedly emphasized how much he enjoyed football as his brilliant career enters its final chapters.

The 35 year old, plays its fifth World Cup in Qataradded that he had prepared no differently for the tournament, which will be played for the first time in November and December.

“I didn’t do anything special,” he said.

“I took care of myself and worked like I’ve done all my career, knowing that this is a special moment, as this is probably my last World Cup, my last chance to achieve this big dream that I have, that we all have. ”

With a 36-game unbeaten run, Argentina opens the group stage against Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest seeded team in the tournament.

It looks like an ideal opportunity for Messi to push his international goals to a century – he currently has 91 – in what is surely a losing effort to reach the leading men’s score of 117, owned by great rivals Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal.

Messi vs Ronaldo
(Al Jazeera)

How Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni treats Messi ahead of the opening match at the 80,000-seat Lusail stadium could be instructive given how captains’ fitness has been managed heading into the World Cup.

Messi may not be needed for too long against Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis may have made it through the Asian qualifying rounds relatively comfortable, but they tend to struggle at the top level of football, only reaching the last 16 once in their five appearances at the World Cup.

They started the 2018 World Cup tournament with a 5-0 defeat to hosts Russia.

On the other hand, Argentina opened the 2018 World Cup with a disappointing 1-1 draw against tiny Iceland – in a match where Messi saved a penalty – which immediately put pressure on the Albiceleste.

Messi finally wants to win the World Cup to cement his status as arguably the greatest footballer ever.

“It is most likely my last World Cup,” he repeated, “my last chance to make my – our – dream come true.”

By playing against Saudi Arabia, Messi becomes the first Argentine player to play in five World Cups, one more than Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.

Under French coach Hervé Renard, the Saudis have been preparing for several weeks after domestic competitions were interrupted to allow players to concentrate on the World Cup.

Saudi Arabia's Salman al-Faraj scores a goal from the penalty spot in Volgograd, Russia.
Saudi Arabia’s Salman al-Faraj scores their first goal from the penalty spot during the 2018 match between Saudi Arabia and Egypt at the Volgograd Arena, Volgograd, Russia [File: Darren Staples/Reuters]

They also received a visit from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who gave a speech to the side ahead of the tournament.

“It was very positive,” Renard said on Monday.

“It was very important to hear from our leader before we left for such a great game,” he said.

“We didn’t come to this World Cup for fun. We came here to get the best out of ourselves. We hope that all the Saudis in the stadium will be proud of us, that’s the most important thing.”



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