Lionel Messi: It’s no bad thing to be compared to Diego, but it’s not a motivation for me to win the World Cup
Is the World Cup still the biggest competition in football?
The World Cup is the biggest tournament, but the Champions League is also an amazing tournament at club level, which I’ve been lucky enough to play in and win.
What’s the atmosphere like in Argentina during a World Cup?
People in Argentina live for that atmosphere and look forward to it with great excitement. They obviously have a lot of expectations for us given the way we qualified for the finals, and their support has helped a lot along the way. The friendlies since then have been no different and demonstrate that the public are looking forward to the World Cup with great anticipation.
What do you remember of the World Cup, growing up?
The first World Cup I remember well was France 98, when Argentina lost to Holland in the quarter-finals with that goal from Dennis Bergkamp. The 2002 tournament is another memory. I remember Argentina approached that World Cup as one of the favourites but were unlucky to go out in the group stages after losing to England. Those two tournaments are the ones that most stick in my mind.
What’s your first World Cup memory?
[Pauses, thinking] It would definitely come from 1998. I was very young during USA 94 so I can’t really remember an awful lot. But by France 98 I understood how important the World Cup was and followed it very closely. [FFT: There must be a specific moment, though...] Well, I’ll never forget Javier Zanetti’s goal against England in the 1998 round of 16. It was a fantastically worked free-kick and Argentina played well to win the game on penalties. That’s the game I best remember from that tournament. [Laughs at FFT mentioning England’s problems from the spot with a knowing smile and nod of the head]
You’ve won everything there is to win with Barcelona. What would it mean to win the World Cup with Argentina?
It would mean everything. For any player, winning the World Cup is as good as it gets and a unique thing to achieve. However, I’ve been very lucky to win a lot of trophies with Barcelona, and all of them have been special. Each title I’ve won has been important and forms part of my career, and the World Cup is the biggest there is. Would I swap a Ballon d’Or for a World Cup winners’ medal? Yes. I’ve always said that individual awards don’t mean as much to me as the titles I’ve won as part of a team.
Sergio Aguero said you have an almost telepathic understanding on the pitch after playing together for so many years. Describe your relationship...
We’ve known each other for years, since we were just a pair of kids of 14, 15 years of age. We’ve always enjoyed playing together. We have a great friendship away from the pitch and that really helps us to get the best out of each other when we run out onto the pitch. He’s without doubt a player who’s different to the rest because he can do special things.
Aguero and I play FIFA together a fair bit when we’re away with Argentina. I wouldn’t say we’re the kings of the computer, but we win more than we lose!
Kun told us you’re FIFA partners on the games console, too...
[Laughs] Yeah, we play together a fair bit when we’re away with Argentina. I wouldn’t say we’re the kings of the computer, but we win more than we lose, I suppose!
You won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. Is that the best moment you’ve had in an Argentina shirt so far?
I’ve experienced a lot of things with Argentina, both good and bad. The most beautiful have been winning the Under-20 World Cup in 2005 and obviously the 2008 Olympics. We had a spectacular 2007 Copa America but unfortunately lost the final. But, being honest: yes, I’d have to say winning that gold medal was my best moment.
Describe Alejandro Sabella as a coach.
First and foremost, he’s a great person. He knows a lot about football and has very clear ideas about how he wants the team to play. We’re a strong group of players and he knows how to manage us. Throughout qualifying and in friendlies he’s picked the same players in squads and the starting XI, which has helped us to come together as a group and get to know each other very well. That’s helped us to strengthen a lot over the last couple of years. He’s got a great football brain and knows how to transmit that to us players.
What has he added to Argentina?
It’s the little things, because we already had a strong squad before he arrived in 2011. As time’s gone by, these things have helped us to become even better. Personally, I think we’ve demonstrated that by winning important games throughout qualifying, and it’s this mentality that Alejandro has instilled in us from the beginning.
When I was growing up, people would talk about their memories of 1986...
There are always comparisons between you and Maradona. People say the big difference is that you’ve never won the World Cup. Does that serve as inspiration?
I’ve never thought about comparisons with any player, nor have I ever given any importance to such things. It’s no bad thing to be compared to Diego, but it’s not a motivation for me to win the World Cup. I want to win the World Cup because it would be brilliant for everyone in Argentina and for our team. I just hope we can achieve that.
You weren’t born when Diego lifted the trophy in 1986. What do you know about that tournament, Argentina’s last triumph?
Yeah, when I was growing up, people would talk about their memories of that tournament; show me photos of what a World Cup means to people. I obviously wasn’t born, but through those pictures and memories I’ve learned more about that victory. It would be wonderful for me, my team-mates and the country as a whole to repeat that. It’s the most beautiful thing there is in football. To be ready to achieve this would be marvellous.
Is it your destiny to win the World Cup?
I hope so. Only God can answer that!