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Key Players

Lionel Messi’s international retirement and the 2018 World Cup

The Copa America Centenario held in the United States earlier this summer appeared to be the chance for Lionel Messi to at last collect a senior trophy with Argentina.

He started the tournament on the bench due to an injury but then returned with a hat-trick against Panama and his form just improved as the tournament progressed. In the semi-final against the United States, he scored an exquisite free-kick that left Brad Guzan with no chance of getting anywhere near the ball. The match ended in a 4-0 win for La Albiceleste and secured their third successive major final appearance in as many years.

There were the familiar foes in the final. Chile and Argentina had clashed in the 2015 Copa America final after a cagey battle that was only settled after a penalty shootout – the Chileans secured their first major international trophy. Will La Roja claim their second major title in two years or will it finally be the year when Messi broke his international duck? They were the two main questions on everyone’s lip.

The final followed a similar pattern to the one in Chile a year ago. There was intense pressing from Chile in midfield with no Argentine player allowed any time on the ball to conjure anything meaningful. Messi was especially hounded whenever he was on the ball.

The similarities between the two finals became even clearer when Gonzalo Higuain fluffed a relatively easy chance. In fact, a very easy chance considering Higuain broke an over half a century-old Serie A goalscoring record last season, and did so with a splendid strike in the final game of the season. He came close but there was no cigar for him in the Copa America final.

The match ultimately went to the penalties, and Messi who had put his side ahead with the penalty kick of the shootout last year, fluffed his lines this summer. The final ultimately ended the same way it did last year – with Claudio Bravo hoisting the Copa America.

However, one thing was different. Messi was in tears after the final whistle. The man of reserved emotions couldn’t hold his tears back after yet another international disappointment and they came out flooding in the full glare of the unforgiving cameras.

But the biggest shock was to come later. Not long after the final whistle, the news came that Messi has announced his retirement from international football. Shocking. Messi just turned 29 during the Copa America and is clearly still in his prime.

Messi, speaking to media personnel afterwards, said that he just couldn’t take the disappointments any longer and his best efforts to deliver Argentina silverware have come to nought leaving him completely drained. He just couldn’t take it any longer.

Messi’s announcement means that he won’t be competing at the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time.

The lead up to the World Cup is already marred with many issues. From racism, to human rights violations, to widespread hooliganism, there are problems aplenty in Russia.

Perhaps one saving grace for the beleaguered World Cup would have been to see the world’s best players in Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in full glory. And the Russian authorities would be hoping that the action on the pitch would take attention away from the unsavoury happenings off it.

But it looks like the 2018 World Cup just can’t catch a break.

Gianluigi Buffon at the 2018 World Cup?

The Juventus and Italy national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is still going strong at 38, and is showing absolutely no sign of slowing down.

The Azzurri skipper showed some sharp reflexes when he kept out a late close range effort from Spain defender Gerard Pique in their recent European Championship round of 16 tie in France. The shot, had it gone in, would have brought the scores level and possibly taken the match into extra time. But no, not under Buffon’s watch.

The veteran custodian has expressed his desire to play for the Italian national team at least until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and on current form, he absolutely deserves to be the man between the sticks for the Azzurri when they begin their quest for a fifth world title.

However, the decorated goalkeeper’s impressive trophy cabinet isn’t bereft of the biggest international honour. Buffon was an integral and instrumental member of the 2006 Italian side that went on to win the World Cup after defeating France in a penalty shootout in the final in Germany.

That team, like most Italian teams, was built around an exemplary defence – with Fabio Cannavaro in the form of his career that later won him a Ballon d’Or. They conceded just two goals through the course of the World Cup campaign. The first of which was an own goal by Christian Zaccardo against the United States in a 1-1 draw during the group stage, while the second was a penalty converted by Zinedine Zidane in the final.

Buffon has been part of five World Cups so far – a record he shares with Antonio Carbajal of Mexico and Germany legend Lothar Matthaus. The goalkeeper got his first taste of World Cup in 1998 in France, where the then 20-year-old was an unused substitute as Gianluca Pagliuca took up the goalkeeping duties.

However, four years later Buffon was the number 1 for the Italian national team in South Korea and Japan. The Italians went out of the tournament in the round of 16 following their loss to the hosts South Korea. The match was marred with a slew of controversial refereeing decisions that led to the early exit for the Azzurri.

In 2006, Buffon’s international career reached its apotheosis as Italy won their fourth world title with a series of outstanding displays, especially in the knockout stages. Their semi-final clash against Germany was a special game. The two sides remained locked at 0-0 until the 119th minute when Andrea Pirlo played one of his greatest passes which Fabio Grosso converted with a fantastic shot and embarked on a celebration reminiscent of Marco Tardelli’s jubilation in the 1982 World Cup final against the same opponents.

Buffon collected the Lev Yashin award for being the best goalkeeper at the tournament.

The 2010 World Cup proved to be a disaster for the Azzurri. The 2006 World Cup winning manager, Marcelo Lippi was brought in before the tournament began in South Africa but he couldn’t repeat the heroics of Germany as Italy crashed out in the first round without winning any of their three games.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil followed a similar pattern to 2010 and Italy again failed to progress past the group stage after registering only one win from their three group stage fixtures.

Will 2018 World Cup see Buffon emulate the feat of his compatriot Dino Zoff and bow out of the international stage as a world champion at 40? Time will tell.

Russia 2018 could be the last World Cup for 10 Modern Day Greats

Cristiano Ronaldo

By the time the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, Ronaldo will be 33 years old and surely be playing in his last ever world championship. The Real Madrid forward has been one of the best players in the world for over a decade, and will attempt to land the coveted trophy for Portugal in two years’ time.

 Wayne Rooney

The England national team captain has gone on to become the top scorer in the history of the Three Lions, having overtaken legendary Sir Bobby Charlton last year. The long-serving Manchester United player will have his last shot at World Cup glory in 2018.

 Thiago Silva

Neymar and Silva missed out on the semi-final against Germany in the last World Cup, a match that ended in a 7-1 defeat for the home side. However, it was clear to everyone who understands the game that who the Brazilians missed the most was their accomplished captain more than the attacking maestro.

 Zlatan Ibrahimovic

The Sweden international has been one of the most successful forwards of his generation. He has won titles across the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France and will love to cap off his international journey with a successful World Cup campaign in Russia.

Giorgio Chiellini

The Italian defender has continued the tradition of great centre-backs that the Azzurri have been historically blessed with. At the age of 33 in 2018, he is expected to be the first–choice defender for manager Antonio Conte and will be eager to add a World Cup to his impressive trophy cabinet.

Luka Modric

The Croat has arguably become the most important player in a star-studded Real Madrid line-up. His vision and an unparalleled ability to find the perfect pass has made him an indispensable part of Los Blancos’ first team and he will be eager to finish on a high at what should be his last World Cup in 2018.

 Dani Alves

Through the course of his eight-year stay at the Camp Nou, the Brazilian has gone on to become the greatest right-back in the history of Barcelona. His collection of team trophies is more than any of his illustrious club team-mates; however, a World Cup with the national team has eluded him so far. Alves would love to address that in Russia.

Yaya Toure

The Ivory Coast midfielder has been one of the most talented box-to-box midfielders of his generation. His long-range strikes and lung-busting runs through the middle have seen Manchester City grab important points ever since he has been at the Etihad Stadium. Having won the Africa Cup of Nations last year, the Ivorian will be keen to finish on a high in Russia.

 Arjen Robben

The Bayern Munich star has aged like a good wine. He has kept getting better and better with each passing years, although injuries have affected his minutes on the pitch in the past year or so. He flunked a fair few chances in the 2010 World Cup final against Spain, and will be eager to make amends in 2018.

 Javier Mascherano

The Argentine is one of the greatest defensive midfielders of his generation and it further enhances his greatness that he is equally adept as a centre-back for his club, Barcelona. The Argentina international will attempt to do one better than La Albiceleste’s runners-up finish in Brazil when they attempt to win their third World Cup in 2018.