Dubai: Lionel Messi celebrated his birthday on Monday safe in the knowledge that his eternal quest to win major silverware for Argentina is still intact — just — thanks to a 2-0 victory over Qatar in the Copa America.
The win is their first in a tournament that has seen them lurch through to the quarter-finals despite a woeful loss to Colombia and an insipid draw with Paraguay in heir earlier Group A games.
Messi, widely regarded as the greatest player of his generation, has had yet another quiet competition on the global stage for the two-time World Cup winners and 14-time Copa champions. While the playmaker in chief has picked up every major accolade in club football for Barcelona, he has failed to get his hands on a trophy for Argentina, most notably losing in the World Cup final to Germany in 2014 and missing out to Chile in the past to editions of the Copa.
While Messi and Co are just grateful to be through to the last eight this time around, the ever-demanding Argentina fans are hungry for a trophy, having last won the World Cup in 1986 and the Copa in 1993.
Optimistic birthday boy Messi believes that the win over Qatar could be the catalyst for glory this time around.
“We played a good game and we won, and that was what mattered,” Messi said. “We needed a game like this to gain some confidence and calm. As we play more games the team grows each one and that game was good for that.”
Messi was given the extra bonus of avoiding South American powerhouse Brazil in the quarters — Argentina face Venezuela on Friday — but they will need to seriously up their game if they are to negotiate a path to the semis, where arch-rivals Brazil will be the likely opponents, before they even consider their chances of making the finale at the Maracana in Rio on July 7.
Even against a poor Qatar side, the weaknesses were apparent on Sunday night after they were gifted the opener when an atrocious pass out of defence was pounced upon by Lautaro Martinez.
Both Martinez and veteran striker Sergio Aguero missed easy chances against mediocre opponents and, despite Messi looking to finally having rediscovered his pace, appetite and touch, La Albiceleste had to rely on a late strike by Aguero to ensure their passage to the last eight of the competition.
“When we scored the first goal we just needed to keep our calm until the end and we were qualified,” said Martinez, who seemed to either be gracious to his opponents or was covering up for what should have been a more convincing win when he added: “We were playing a good team, we couldn’t make a mess of it.”
Coach Lionel Scaloni said he was content with the performance and delighted to still be in with a chance of silverware.
“Of course there are things we can improve on but we’re satisfied,” he said. “The message has to be that as long as we’re in the Copa America we need to keep pushing forward.”
As Messi blew out 32 candles on his birthday cake on Monday, the bigger question for Argentina is who will pick up the torch once he and his fellow star veterans hang up their boots for good?
Messi (133 caps), Aguero (93), Angel Di Maria (99) and Nicolas Otamendi (63) account for more than two-thirds of the caps in the entire Argentina squad and only Juventus forward Paulo Dybala and Villarreal defender Ramiro Funes Mori have more than 20 appearances to their name.
Without a true star player waiting in the Argentine wings waiting to take over the burden of leading the team, should they fail with Messi and his fellow thirtysomethings in tow, goodness knows how long it will take them to get back to the top in their absence.