Messi: I hope football pays its debt to me

  • Lionel Messi speaks exclusively to

  • The Argentina star reflects on his World Cup qualifying heroics

  • Discusses hitting 30 and Argentina's prospects at Russia 2018

In the end it was just a scare. Argentina qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ following a traumatic campaign in which no one suffered more than Lionel Messi.

The undisputed leader of the side and their mainstay throughout the preliminaries, only Messi knew where his international future would have lain had his side not made it to Russia. Since qualifying, Argentina have been drawn in Group D with Iceland ("might seem easy, but they are tough and well organised on defence"), Croatia ("they give you more room to play, but have great players") and Nigeria ("one day they score four goals, the next one, they leave plenty spaces for you to do anything").

Secure in the knowledge that he had done his job, the Argentina captain spoke to about La Albiceleste’s qualifying travails, his decisive contribution in the final match against Ecuador, how he sees the team evolving and the debt the game owes him. Looking ahead to Russia, where are Argentina in relation to teams like Germany and Brazil? Lionel Messi: We’ll be in good shape when we get there because we’re still growing. We had to go through something that we didn’t expect or deserve, because we had earlier matches against Venezuela and Peru that we could have won easily. If we had, then we wouldn’t have had to go through what we did at the end. We’ve had four competitive matches with a new coach, but the national team’s going to change now that the Ecuador game’s behind us. It’s going to grow and it’s going to get rid of all the tension and fear it felt because of that match and because of the risk of not achieving our objective. The national team’s going to change a lot.

Were you surprised Chile failed to qualify? Yes, like everyone else. After all, Chile won the last two Copas America and they’re a side that’s grown used to winning. They’re a great team with very good players. But it just goes to show you how difficult the South American qualifiers are, because nobody gives you anything. It’s not easy to go and play away in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and all the other places where you have to go, not least Brazil. There’s less and less of a gap between teams and it’s getting more and more difficult to reach the World Cup.

Have the wounds of Brazil 2014 healed? No! I don’t know if they’re ever going to heal. We’re just going to have to live with it. It’s going to be there forever. The World Cup is a very happy memory and a bitter one too because of how it ended, how it all worked out. But it’s always going to be there.

How are you feeling now you’ve turned 30? Are you where you thought you’d be? To tell you the truth, I never thought about how I’d be feeling when I got here. But I’m very happy with both my personal life and football. I’d say I’m in good shape on and off the pitch. I’m very pleased with where I am right now.

Lots of things change as time goes by. Has your football changed too? Yes, of course. You grow, and as time goes by you improve as well, picking up new things along the way. As I’ve grown older I’ve grown on the pitch too.

Argentina’s national team can see that for itself. Where would you rank the qualifying match against Ecuador in your international career? It was very important because missing out on the World Cup would have been a huge blow, firstly for the squad as a whole and then for me on a personal level. I don’t know how I would have taken it. The same goes for the people of Argentina. Failing to make Russia would have been an all-time low for the country.

Given the importance of the match, was it a performance that you think you had to give? No, I don’t know if I had to give it. I’ve had some really good games with the national team. What I can say is that with the way things turned out it was a very important and special moment for me.

After Argentina qualified for Russia 2018, coach Jorge Sampaoli said that football owes Messi a World Cup. Did you hear that and what do you make of it? Yes, I did hear it, and he said it to me too. I hope football does end up paying me! (laughs)

Talking of the World Cup, we have a little challenge for you. Can you complete the following sentence? In 2018, Lionel Messi will be… (Thinks) I’ll be a father for the third time!