Lionel Messi’s recent photo shoot for PAPER is slaying the web.
In the New York-based pop culture magazine’s Sports Issue the Barcelona forward and Argentina captain — popularly styled the Greatest Of All Time — is shown petting a goat, holding a goat and playing football with 12 goats. There is also an image of a goat with the player’s boots draped around its neck.
The messaging is as clear as it is meme-inducing. Messi is the GOAT, and not even the 2014 Kim Kardashian cover of the same publication managed to break the internet as successfully.
This is the sort of zoomorphism LeBron James can only dream of. Then again, the basketball icon is not the biggest star in the world’s biggest sport. Messi is, and over the next month he’ll also be participating in the world’s biggest sporting event. The story writes itself.
In the prime of his career — albeit nearer to its end than its beginning — Messi, who has scored 30 more goals for La Albiceleste than Diego Maradona, and who continues to compile a football CV that dwarfs the Argentine legend’s, will look to lead an otherwise unspectacular team to a first major title since the 1993 Copa America and a first World Cup since Maradona lifted it in 1986.
Rarely, if ever, has so much been expected of one player going into a World Cup tournament. But when Messi put his country on his back and carried it into the group stage draw with a hat-trick against Ecuador at altitude, he served notice that he was capable of qualifying out of the difficult South American region effectively by himself. And if qualification, why not the entire World Cup?
Messi — the GOAT — and his following of Argentine misfits will provide the predominant storyline of the next few weeks. Naturally, there will be others to keep track of, as well. Argentina will face Iceland in their opening match at the 2018 World Cup — the same Iceland who beat England at Euro 2016 and who booked passage to Russia after finishing atop a qualification group that also included Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine. Croatia, incidentally, are alongside Argentina and Iceland in Group D.
Also in Messi & Co.’s prospective path are Spain, who have undergone a stylistic transformation under manager Julen Lopetegui. No tiki-taka here. Driven by the dual engines of Andres Iniesta and David Silva, La Roja are all-action, switching the ball to the opposite flank in one instant and playing long, accurate through-balls the next. Now if they can only get some goal-scoring out of Diego Costa.
Uruguay, too, have changed the way they play. This is no longer the team that bullied its way through tournaments in years past. Winger Nahitan Nandez, just 22, is a young player to keep an eye on, and the likes of Matias Vecino and Rodrigo Bentancur give the midfield an altogether more skilful characteristic.
Another young player set to impress in Russia, and who already has a fascinating personal story, is 23-year-old Denmark winger Pione Sisto. Born shortly after his family fled Sudan, his first few months of life were spent travelling from Uganda to a remote village in northern Denmark. He has since helped La Liga’s Celta Vigo to a pair of respectable 13th-place finishes and in 2016 scored home and away against Manchester United for former club Midtylland. He plays with his bootlaces untied.
As it happens, Sisto’s captain with Denmark, Simon Kjaer, along with Mile Jedinak and Hugo Lloris — the skippers of Australia and France, respectively — recently penned letters of support for Peru captain and all-time leading goal-scorer Paolo Guerrero, who was set to miss the World Cup after testing positive for a cocaine metabolite in October. Denmark, Australia, France and Peru will face one another in Group C. It was a sporting gesture, but given Guerrero’s pair of goals in his comeback against Saudi Arabia last weekend, it may be one his opponents come to regret.
And so we come full circle. Should Peru finish second in their bracket, which is entirely possible, it’s likely they’ll face Argentina in the Round of 16. At that point their story, like every other at this World Cup, will be subsumed into the Lionel Messi narrative.
As long as Messi keeps on winning, he’ll wear the goat horns. And in 2018 that’s a good thing.
The favourite: Eight years ago Uruguay fulfilled the role of villains in South Africa when Luis Suarez denied Ghana an extra-time winner with his hand and then watched as his teammates prevailed on penalty kicks. At the 2014 World Cup Suarez bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini — a bizarre assault that earned the striker a nine-match ban. The now-31-year-old and his Uruguay teammates have developed a reputation as international bullies in recent times, but over the next few weeks Suarez, who has enjoyed four productive, controversy-free seasons at Barcelona, and his teammates with La Celeste will look to shed that image. This Uruguay side is more inventive and dynamic than previous instalments, and as a result, they’ll garner more praise than protestations in Russia.
The star man: Mohamed Salah scored 44 goals for Liverpool during the club season. Still recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final, he is unlikely to feature in his country’s opener against Uruguay but should be ready to face Russia on June 19.
The breakout: Nahitan Nandez is the standout contributor in Uruguay’s new-look midfield. The Boca Juniors man will work the channels down the right-hand side and combine with fullback Guillermo Varela to service forwards Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
The key match: The World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia will, in many ways, set the tone for this group — and look for the Saudis to get something out of the match — but it will likely be the Russia-Egypt encounter that will decide second place in the bracket.
The surprise: In 2010 South Africa became the first World Cup hosts to fail to advance beyond the event’s first stage. Russia could well become the second and will almost certainly be condemned to that fate if they don’t take all three points from Saudi Arabia on June 14.
The Prediction: Uruguay and Egypt advance.
The favourite: After winning the World Cup in 2010, Spain failed to even get out of their group in 2014. Four years on they’re back among the serious contenders in Russia, and with veteran contributors such as Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta having once again compiled exceptional seasons at club level it’s not inconceivable that La Roja could contest a semifinal or even the final. In other words, look to France between 1998 and 2006 for a similar scenario.
The star man: He may be 33, but Cristiano Ronaldo will enter this tournament as one of the top two or three players in the world, if not the very best. Fresh off an incredible fifth Champions League success, the Portugal captain and Euro 2016 winner is in hot pursuit of the only major honour he still lacks: a World Cup.
The breakout: Two years ago Dutch football icon Marco van Basten remarked that it was "stupid" of Hakim Ziyech to represent Morocco instead of the Netherlands. Ziyech, who plays his club football at Ajax, is the son of Moroccan parents (the youngest of nine children) and made his debut for the Atlas Lions in 2015. A silky-smooth playmaker who operates from the left of midfield and has an eye for a set-piece, he’s hoping to turn a standout World Cup into a summer transfer to AS Roma or Borussia Dortmund.
The key match: The Portugal-Spain clash of June 15 will generate headlines, but the most meaningful Group B match will take place June 20 when Portugal faces Morocco in Moscow.
The surprise: Iran was the third team to book passage to this World Cup, but notwithstanding their strong qualifying campaign, they’ll be hard-pressed to get a result in what is a difficult group. Morocco, meanwhile, have been rounding into form at just the right time and are good enough that a defeat of Portugal wouldn’t even be that much of an upset.
The Prediction: Spain and Morocco advance.
The favourite: France manager Didier Deschamps caused one or two gasps when he left Laurent Koscielny, Adrien Rabiot, Dimitri Payet and Alexander Lacazette out of his squad for the 2018 World Cup. That he was confident in making such omissions, however, is testament to his faith in the players he’s taking to Russia — and very good players, at that. A potential attacking trio of Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe should be able to break down any defence, and midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante will provide no shortage of dynamism in the centre of the park. This is easily the best France team since 2006.
The star man: No one player is more important to his team’s success in this bracket than Peru captain Paolo Guerrero. Restored to La Blanquirroja after his international suspension was put on hold, he scored twice on his return against Saudi Arabia last Sunday.
The breakout: Pione Sisto’s family fled Sudan in the mid-1990s, and he arrived in Denmark as a two-month-old. Just three years after receiving Danish citizenship he’ll provide his country with pace and provision from the left-hand side.
The key match: Peru and Denmark will open the World Cup against one another in Saransk on June 16. The winner will likely finish second in the bracket and earn a berth in the knockout stages.
The surprise: This is Peru’s fifth World Cup and first since 1982. Only Brazil and Uruguay scored more than they did in South American qualifying, and in Guerrero, Jefferson Farfan and Edison Flores they should be able get the necessary goals to not only progress from Group C but also give Argentina a match in the Round of 16.
The Prediction: France and Peru advance.
The favourite: Argentina went into their final qualification match needing three points in Quito. It didn’t look good for the two-time world champions when Romario Ibarra scored inside the first minute for Ecuador, but from there it was the Lionel Messi show. Strapping his country to his back, the Barcelona maestro scored a hat-trick and hauled La Albiceleste into the tournament proper. In Russia the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will be expected to do nothing less than drag what is a generally unimpressive lineup even further, perhaps all the way to the July 15 final. Of course, he could do with some help from the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria, but based on history he’ll know not to expect it. Argentina will go only as far as Messi takes them.
The star man: In addition to those five Ballon d’Or trophies, Messi’s cabinet also includes nine La Liga titles, six Copas de Rey, four Champions Leagues and five European Golden Shoes, among dozens of other individual and team awards. A World Cup would nicely cap off what has been an extraordinary career.
The breakout: Nigeria showed in the second half of their pre-tournament match against England that they have the pace and attacking prowess to do some damage at the World Cup. But when play is coming at them they’ll be relying on 21-year-old Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi to break up the opposition build-up and launch counter-attacks.
The key match: Nigeria will face an experienced Croatia side on June 16 in Kaliningrad. If they can keep the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic at bay they’ll set themselves up nicely for a shot at second place in this bracket.
The surprise: Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. They’ll defend with intensity and look to Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Burnley’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson to snatch the occasional goal.
The Prediction: Argentina and Nigeria advance.
The favourite: When Tite succeeded Dunga as Brazil boss in June 2016 the five-time world champions were nearer the bottom than the top of South America’s qualification standings. They beat Ecuador 3-0 in the former Corinthians manager’s first match in charge and dropped only four points the rest of the way en route to a convincing first-place finish. Notably, 10 players who featured in that match in Quito also made appearances in a 2-0 friendly win over Croatia on June 3. Tite has brought balance and stability to the Selecao while releasing the likes Neymar, Fred, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus to provide the jogo bonito.
The star man: Neymar had missed more than three months with a foot injury when he made his return against Croatia at Anfield. Twenty-four minutes after being introduced, he cut inside three opponents and thundered the ball into the back of the net. The goal was his 54th for Brazil and took him to within one of Romario and third-place on the country’s all-time list.
The breakout: Serbia midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic scored 15 goals for Lazio this season and provides the imagination in a formidable midfield that also includes Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic of Crystal Palace.
The key match: With Switzerland expected to struggle in front of goal, second place could well come down to the bracket’s opening match between Costa Rica and Serbia on June 17 in Samara.
The surprise: Costa Rica topped a group that included Uruguay, Italy and England at the 2014 World Cup before dumping Greece out of the knockout stages. The Ticos will once again look to Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas to provide heroics behind an air-tight defence.
The Prediction: Brazil and Serbia advance.
The favourite: Four years ago, with James Rodriguez scoring golazos, Robin van Persie flying Superman into headers and Brazil off to a promising start at a home World Cup, Germany quietly went about their business before thrashing the host nation 7-1 and then beating Argentina to lift the trophy. Typically, merely entering the next World Cup as defending champions would warrant considerable attention, but that’s not the case with this group. Germany do not have a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, a Neymar or Mohamed Salah, and as a result they go into this tournament as they so often do: as understated contenders. Now, Toni Kroos is one of the best midfielders in the world, and defenders Niklas Sule and Mats Hummels will keep things tidy in defence, but there’s nothing flashy about this team. It is, in every sense of the word, a "team," Die Mannchaft.
The star man: Goals have been difficult to come by for Bayern Munich forward Thomas Muller the past two seasons. That said, the 28-year-old is the World Cup’s leading active goal-scorer and tends to save his best football for the biggest of stages.
The breakout: Since 2016 Hirving Lozano has won the Mexican Clausura, the CONCACAF Champions League and the Eredivisie. He’s coming off a 19-goal season for Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven and will be counted on to transfer that title-winning form to international level for Mexico.
The key match: South Korea will struggle to earn a single point in Group F, and that means a spot in the Round of 16 will be the prize when Mexico and Sweden clash in Yekaterinburg on June 27.
The surprise: Sweden have a mostly settled lineup going into this World Cup. If Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg can nick the odd goal they may just end Mexico’s tournament at the group stage.
The Prediction: Germany and Sweden advance.
The favourite: They are not a dark horse. They won’t surprise anyone at the 2018 World Cup—that is, of course, unless they’re eliminated before the semifinals. No, this Belgium team is the real deal, on paper the best group of players that has ever represented the Red Devils. Now they just need a deep run at a major competition to emulate Nico Claesen, Jan Ceulemans and their other famous forbears of the early and mid-1980s. They’ll set up with three in defence in Russia, and Mousa Dembele and Kevin De Bruyne will look to establish themselves as the best midfield partnership of the competition. Up top, if Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku can emulate the finishing, trickery and power they produce at club level there will be few opponents that can keep them at bay. If any.
The star man: Manchester City finished 19 points clear atop the Premier League this season—an accomplishment thanks in large part to De Bruyne. He led the division with 16 assists and will pull the strings in the centre of the park for Belgium.
The breakout: Leander Dendoncker is an up-and-coming star but will receive limited playing time at this World Cup because of Belgium’s midfield depth. Group F’s breakthrough player could well be Raheem Sterling, who scored 23 goals for Manchester City this season but is yet to make much of an impact for England.
The key match: Tunisia will struggle to find the back of the net in Russia, and Panama, while experienced, won’t make much of a dent in this bracket. Group G is a two-horse race that won’t be decided until June 28, when England and Belgium tangle in Kaliningrad.
The surprise: They’re rather flying under the radar (for once) but England play some exciting stuff, encouraged by manager Gareth Southgate to pass quickly and interchange positions in attack. The Three Lions could pull an upset in the quarter-finals.
The Prediction: Belgium and England advance.
The favourite: Shortly before the half-hour mark of Colombia’s Round of 16 match against Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup, James Rodriguez chested Abel Aguilar’s header past and slammed a right-footed volley from 25 yards off the underside of Fernando Muslera’s crossbar. Widely hailed as the goal of the tournament, it was just one of six the Cafeteros playmaker scored in Brazil. Over the next few weeks James, who enjoyed a sort of revival at Bayern Munich this season, will lead Colombia through what should be a winnable group and into the knockout stages, where an encounter with one of Belgium and England will await. Monaco striker Radamel Falcao will provide additional offence, and a new-look defensive pairing of Tottenham’s Davison Sanchez and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina will give little away in front of goal.
The star man: Robert Lewandowski has scored at least 40 goals in each of his last three seasons at Bayern Munich and is Poland’s all-time leading goal-scorer. Nevertheless, he has only two goals from major tournaments on his CV — one each at Euro 2012 and 2016 — and will need to improve on that record if his country is to make any sort of impact in Russia.
The breakout: Following in the footsteps of Senegal teammate and Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, Ismaila Sarr came through at Dakar outfit Generation Foot before moving to Ligue 1. An athletic winger with a gift for the dribble, he could well be the ace up Teranga Lions manager Aliou Cisse’s sleeve at this World Cup.
The key match: Poland and Senegal will face one another on June 19 in Moscow — a match that will likely catapult the winner into the Round of 16.
The surprise: Senegal possess considerable individual talent. If it all comes together, particularly in attack, they should be able to see off both Poland and an aging Japan side.
The Prediction: Colombia and Senegal advance.