Lionel Messi said the fear of missing out on the World Cup drove him to arguably his finest performance for Argentina after his hat-trick sent them to Russia.
Messi was the inspiration as Argentina came from behind to win 3-1 in Ecuador and secure a place in the finals on a dramatic final night of South American qualifying.
Argentina were in danger of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970 after they fell behind against Ecuador after just 38 seconds. But Messi produced an outstanding display to secure a famous win and ensure the 30-year-old will have another shot at his dream of lifting the World Cup.
“There was always the fear of coming here to play,” admitted the Barcelona star. “It would have been crazy not to be in the World Cup.
“Luckily we could react and we managed to play well. We were calm, we achieved the goal and that is the most important thing. Thanks to God, we fulfilled the objective.”
Messi knows next summer may be his final chance to win the World Cup after three failed attempts in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Argentina lost 1-0 to Germany in the final in 2014 and Argentina head coach Jorge Sampaoli said last night “football owes a World Cup to Messi”.
Sampaoli said: “Today luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentine. Messi does not owe a World Cup to Argentina — football owes a World Cup to Messi. He is the best player in history.”
Messi will now hope to inspire Argentina to their first World Cup since Diego Maradona lifted the trophy in 1986. Argentina have been heavily criticised for a disappointing campaign but secured an automatic spot in Russia with only their second- ever win at altitude in Ecuador.
Messi, who has now scored 61 goals in 122 appearances for his country, said: “There has been criticism and today was an important day for all. We ended up suffering to enter this World Cup and hopefully we will get it once and for all.
“We were away from the press for a while and the people. It served to get us closer. The team will grow.”
© Evening Standard