Messi's Argentina and champions France jet to World Cup

Messi's Argentina and champions France jet to World Cup

updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:17 PM
Lionel Messi trains in Abu Dhabi
Lionel Messi trains in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Karim SAHIB / AFP
Source: AFP

Argentine superstar Lionel Messi was due to jet into Qatar on Wednesday hoping to crown his glorious career by lifting the World Cup trophy as defending champions France also prepared to join the party.

Messi, 35, has a sackful of trophies but the tournament in Qatar is likely to be his final chance to equal the achievement of fellow Argentine great Diego Maradona, a winner in 1986.

Two-time champions Argentina are playing a friendly against Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, hoping to extend their unbeaten run to 36 matches.

But Paris Saint-Germain forward Messi is cautious about the team's chances in Qatar, even though they are among the favourites.

"We are very excited," the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner said in an interview with CONMEBOL, the South American football federation.

"We have a very nice group that is very eager, but we think about going little by little. We know that World Cup groups are not easy."

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France forward Kylian Mbappe (left) and coach Didier Deschamps attend a training session
France forward Kylian Mbappe (left) and coach Didier Deschamps attend a training session. Photo: Bertrand GUAY / AFP
Source: AFP

Argentina launch their campaign against Saudi Arabia on November 22, with Mexico and Poland also in their group.

Coach Lionel Scaloni has tried to reduce the pressure on his team, who ended a 28-year trophy drought at last year's Copa America and are ranked third in the world.

"We're conscious what football represents for Argentina but it's sport and that's why we have to step on the pitch and do our own thing," he said.

"We have to come out and play the way we know how to. And then there are a lot of unknowns."

Champions arrive

France were also due to arrive in Doha on Wednesday, seeking to become the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.

Ten members of the 2018 title-winning squad return, including captain Hugo Lloris, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.

But the defending champions, grouped with Australia, Denmark and Tunisia, are without first-choice midfield pair Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante.

Qatar is staging the 2022 World Cup
Qatar is staging the 2022 World Cup. Photo: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP
Source: AFP

Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema, who has missed a series of games for Real Madrid this season because of injury, is set for his first World Cup appearance since 2014.

Benzema was frozen out of the France team for more than five years due to his role in a blackmail scandal involving a sextape and his international teammate Mathieu Valbuena.

England and the Netherlands became the first European heavyweights to touch down in Qatar on Tuesday.

England supporters from India outnumbered fans from England nearly 10 to one as Gareth Southgate's team rolled into their World Cup base.

As the team bus pulled up at their hotel, drums were beaten and horns blasted by Indian fans proudly wearing England shirts and carrying England flags.

Conversation as the supporters waited was dominated by reports in the British and French media that they were "fake fans".

Sajidh, 29, said Indian football fans in Qatar had been "outraged" by reports suggesting they had been paid to wear the shirts of World Cup nations when thousands took part in a march along the Doha seafront last week.

"It is purely fake news and I would like to say loud and clear that none of us have been paid in any way," added Sajidh, who gave only one name.

"We are diehard England fans."

World Cup organisers weighed in on the issue on Wednesday, saying supporters from across the world had contributed to the local atmosphere.

"Numerous journalists and commentators on social media have questioned whether these are 'real' fans," they said in a statement.

"We thoroughly reject these assertions, which are both disappointing and unsurprising."

The build-up to the tournament in Qatar has been dominated by concerns over Qatar's treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community.

Pleas from football's world governing body FIFA for a switch in focus to the football have fallen on deaf ears in some countries

FIFA on Tuesday launched its "Football Unites the World" campaign with a video featuring star players including Neymar, Benzema and Edouard Mendy.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said: "Although football is and should be our main focus, the FIFA World Cup is also about values and causes that extend far beyond the pitch."

AFP photo