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Why Messi is Argentina’s ‘true leader’ now

Nothing is done for Argentina or Lionel Messi yet.

You all saw the tension and anxiety we suffered during our game against Mexico until we scored, and also the relief at the final whistle after our 2-0 victory.  There was so much pressure on us after we lost to Saudi Arabia and that relief was for everyone – for the whole team and all our fans here, but especially for Messi.

It would have been a terrible and painful end to see Argentina eliminated in the group stage in what is probably his last World Cup.  We are not in the last 16 yet, though. Now we have to win again – this time against Poland – to be sure we make it.

It won’t be easy, and the team still needs to improve a lot, but hopefully we have some confidence after beating Mexico.  And we always have Messi, of course. We have relied on him so many times in the past, and we know we can rely on him again in Qatar.

It will hard for us to go far in this tournament, we know that. But at least we can dream about this Argentina team again – and that is because of him.

‘I know how much the World Cup means to Messi’  I was there at the start of Messi’s journey with Argentina and I hope so much that he can finish it by lifting this World Cup.  From the first time I saw him touch the ball at the first training session we had together for the under-20 team, I knew he was going to be a very special player.

Of course, we had heard about Messi at Barcelona before we met him, but that was the first time he came to play for Argentina. He did not say much then, but we gave him a massive warm welcome to the team and quickly realised just how good he was.

He came with us to the 2005 Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands when he was 17. I was Argentina captain and we won the tournament together – well, it was mostly down to him!I feel so lucky to have been a part of his generation; to have enjoyed watching and playing alongside him and to have shared so many moments with him, as a team-mate and as a friend.

I know the sacrifices he has made and the difficult times he has been through. Don’t forget, he was only 13 when he moved to Spain.  I also had to leave Argentina at a young age to progress my career – most of our players do – and I know how tough it was for me to adapt. But I was 20 when I joined Seville whereas he was just a young boy.

I am so proud of everything he has done with his life since then, but I also know how much it means for him to represent Argentina, and how badly he wants to lift the greatest trophy in football with us.

It’s always the same: Messi has to win the World Cup  There is a lot of love for Messi back home now, but it has not always been this way.  After we lost the World Cup final in 2014, we lost two other finals – the Copa America in 2015 and 2016.

In Argentina that is not enough. For some people and for parts of our media, just reaching a final is not acceptable.

There was a lot of criticism of Messi because we had not won everything like he was doing with Barcelona at the time.  He gave up after that and took a break from the national team to recharge, but he quickly realised how important it was to him.

Messi has won everything there is to win in club football, but he was desperate to come back and help us win something too. So it was amazing to see him winning his first major trophy at international level, at the Copa America last year.

We won it by beating Brazil in the Maracana, which was something very special, and I loved how everyone ran to Messi at the final whistle to hug him.

That win took the pressure off him a little bit, and stopped people saying he did not play for us the way he played for his club – but still still people expect so much from him at a World Cup.

It is like he has to win – always. Nothing else is acceptable.

So, I know it can be a tough time for him mentally at these tournaments, which is why it is important he has the right people around him to help him relax.

What has changed? Messi has matured

At the 2018 World Cup, I was a pundit for the BBC in Russia and, even from a distance, I could see Messi looked stressed, which was a real worry. The squad was not in a good place and we were knocked out early on.

It was totally different in 2014 when I was with him in the Argentina squad that reached the final in Brazil.

He was leading the team, and he was loving it.  Before this tournament started, I heard Leo say there are similarities between the feelings he had then and the atmosphere in the squad now.

That is a really good sign because it means there is the same togetherness, and also that he is happy.

When I see pictures of the dressing room now, I see a lot of fun happening, like there was in my day. But there is one big difference: Messi himself.

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