The Longshot: Is it now time for a truly Messi ending?

Can the World's greatest player finally lift the World Cup? Probably, writes Robert O'Shea
The Longshot: Is it now time for a truly Messi ending?

The football used by Maradona to score the ‘hand of God’ goal at the 1986 World Cup quarter-final failed to sell at auction this week despite a €2.3m bid. Argentina will hope to end a 36-year wait to win the cup again in Qatar.

THIS week I sent a small WhatsApp group I regularly get annoying messages from the details of a World Cup competition I devised to drum up some interest in them throwing a few bob at, because I’m confident I’ll win.

One of my dupes came back to say: “I’m boycotting the World Cup.” This noble stance lasted about 20 minutes, after which he sent on his selections.

Ignoring the football feast held once every four years this time around is something that is understandable.

Qatar’s selection as host was controversial from the start. Seventeen members of the FIFA executive committee that voted to send the World Cup to the tiny gulf state have since been accused, banned or indicted over allegations of corruption to do with the 2018 and 2022 bids.

The much-reported figure of 6,500 deaths of migrant workers refers to all such fatalities since 2010 rather than ones directly related to the World Cup construction projects.

But would any of us have any idea about the enormity of that tragedy if the tournament wasn’t being held there? Sportswashing can play both ways: drawing as much attention to the stains on a country’s reputation as its attempts to launder them.

If you are interested in finding out more about the regime that runs the country with the biggest gas fields in the world and where just 10% of the population is actually Qatari, I’ve just finished John McManus’s book Inside Qatar, which gives a clear account of what a strange place it is and how badly not just migrant construction workers are treated, but also 180,000 domestic maids who are often no more than indentured servants.

Anyway, back to the football.

Group C

 I recall wandering around Narita Airport in Tokyo in 2002 waiting for a plane to Incheon so I could continue following Mick McCarthy’s men in Korea. Two Argentines approached me and asked if they could swap a No.10 Maradona jersey for my Celtic top. Done. I couldn’t help to feel it was a bit surreal; they were heading home after the group stages, while I was flying off to the second round. They seemed happy about the transaction but I couldn’t help but notice their gloom. They were devastated to be going home so early. Football means more to South Americans than it does to the rest of us. Try to deny it if you wish, but it’s true.

Argentina have flattered to deceive in recent cups, going beyond the quarters once since 1990. But this is the first World Cup Argentina will play in since the death of their most famous football son, Diego. And the focus naturally is on his successor as the most supremely talented man to touch a football since, Mr Messi.

Has the great one’s death taken some of the pressure off?

You’d have to say it is a possibility. Since his passing, they have won the Copa America, their first silverware since 1993 and have gone 36 games unbeaten since 2019 and are one game away from equalling Italy’s record run. They have also conceded just two goals in their last 14 matches, for those overly concerned with Nicolas Otamendi being at the centre of their defence. His club Benfica have yet to lose a game this year.

European teams have dominated the World Cup since Brazil’s win 20 years ago and indeed Germany have beaten Argentina in three of the last four tournaments. Some solace might be they won’t meet them again until at least the semis or the final (it’s a fairly generous 40/1 they meet for the fourth time in the decider).

Messi seems to be enjoying captaining the national side since his departure from Barcelona. Fans often complained what he achieved with his club far outstripped his achievements internationally, although the standard of your teammates has a lot to do with that. He is playing well with Qatari-owned PSG, albeit in the not overly taxing Ligue Un.

Argentina are managed by former West Ham defender Lionel Scaloni, in his first lead coaching role after being an assistant at Sevilla and the national side. It might be fair to say that working with someone so inexperienced at a high level suits Messi.

On paper it looks like they have an easy group. Saudi Arabia are up first. They are coached by experienced international boss Henri Renard, who has won the Africa Cup of Nations with an unfancied Zambia and Ivory Coast. The conditions will be favourable for a side completely made up of domestic league players, but I don’t see them getting through.

Poland are the European representatives. They haven’t emerged from a group since 1986 and are unlikely to do so again. They do have in-form Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski to ably assist the focus of their attack, Robert Lewandowski. But if he can’t drag Barca into the knockout stages of the Champions League by himself, it’s hard to see him doing likewise here. And he’s yet to score in a World Cup.

That leaves Mexico, for whom an elusive ‘fifth game’ remains their greatest ambition. They have gone out in seven second-round games in a row — to Argentina in 2006 and 2010 — since they were hosts in 1986 (they were banned from the 1990 tournament for fielding overage players at the 1988 Olympics). They are managed by an Argentine in Gerardo Martino, who guided Paraguay to the quarter-finals in 2010. Mexico would settle for that. They are 2/1 to go out in the round of 16 again and 10/1 to depart in the quarters.

Argentina/Mexico/Saudi Arabia/Poland for the finishing order is 17/2.

France may follow holders’ trend and struggle this time

GROUP D 

FRANCE are the big hitters in this one. The champs have had the heart torn out of their midfield with Kante and Pogba ruled out and considering only Brazil and Italy have ever retained a World Cup, its seems beyond boss Didier Deschamps to repeat the trick in Qatar, Mbappe up front or not.

Pogba’s star has waned since his second stint at Man United somehow finished more poorly than his first and Kante looks the bigger loss.

Their European opposition in the group are Denmark, so impressive at the Euros in 2021 and who have a miracle man Christian Eriksen back orchestrating things in their midfield. They did the double over France in the Nations League recently and might top this group too (5/2). Here’s hoping they fare better than the Danish film crew who were ordered to stop recording some innocuous footage in a public space in Doha this week.

It looks hard to argue a case for Australia or Tunisia progressing. The Aussies started their qualifying campaign well, before being beaten by Saudi Arabia and Japan (twice), and then dropping points against China and Oman. This forced them into an inter-continental qualifier with Peru, which they won on penalties to book the plane to the Middle East.

France did topple out at the group stages in 2002 after their maiden win (albeit missing Zidane in their first two games), when Denmark beat them 2-0 and topped the group. Germany fell at the first hurdle in 2018. At four of the past five World Cups, the holders have gone out in the groups, with Spain and Italy also faltering.

It’s thus a generous 8/1 for France to go out at the group stages, but because of the weak opposition, I prefer 9/2 on them losing in the second round, as they are on course to meet either Argentina or what would be a very motivated Mexico.

They went out in the last 16 of Euro 2020 to Switzerland on penalties.

Aussies may rue Hansen swap

AUSTRALIA have never been short decent wingers in rugby union, but you’d imagine they are kicking themselves for leaving Mack Hansen disappear under their radar and fly off to the Northern Hemisphere.

The Canberra native qualified to represent Ireland immediately as his mother Diana is an O’Shea from Castlemartyr, who moved to Australia with her family when she was seven.

Of course he’s an O’Shea from East Cork, we should have known!

The Aussies enter the last game of a tour that has seen all their games decided by the margin of a point. First they beat the Scots, followed by defeats in Paris and Padua last weekend, when they missed a fairly easy conversion chance to break Italian hearts with the final kick of the game.

As indicated by coach Andy Farrell afterwards, Ireland weren’t any great shakes against Fiji last weekend.

I expect the Wallabies to put up a good showing tomorrow evening and certainly like the 10/11 on them with a +12 points start.

Christmas tops

IN 10 of the last 13 seasons, the team top of the table Christmas Day have gone on to lift the Premier League.

The bad omen for Mikel Arteta’s side is the last five times Arsenal have been top they have failed to stay there come the end of the campaign. Further, in 15 of the Premier League’s 30 previous campaigns, the festive leaders have been overtaken come the season’s end. So that sounds like it should be a 50/50 shot, while Arsenal are 9/4.

Red wave breaks

WE hit the nail on the head with our prediction of Republicans to regain the House and Democrats to retain the Senate last week at 10/3.

The predicted red wave failing to materialise across the US has been blamed on Donald Trump by most GOP (Republican) supporters, but it hasn’t stopped the doofus from throwing his hat into the ring to recapture the White House next time.

Following a poor mid-term performance by his acolytes, he has drifted out to 4/1 with the bookies, being overtaken by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the new 2/1 favourite.

Uncertainty over who is going to run for the Democrats isn’t helping their ambitions despite a good showing at the polls last week. Joe Biden is 9/2 to get a second term, while his vice-president Kamala Harris is 14/1, the same price as California governor Gavin Newsom.

Their best candidate Pete Buttigieg is 28/1, his chances curtailed unfortunately because he is openly gay and has an odd surname.

The Bet

DOES it seem too much like a fairytale for Messi to lift the World Cup at his fifth and final tournament and emulate Maradona?

He is 11/2 to do so and I’d get on that. He is also 12/1 to be top scorer and 8/1 to be the best player of the tournament. If you do fancy that they might go to town on the Saudis, Inter striker Lautaro Martinez (who bagged a hat-trick against Mexico four years ago) is 25/1 to win the Golden Boot.

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