“I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi.”
Coach Jorge Sampaoli was speaking after a Lionel Messi hat-trick against Ecuador – the 44th of his career – ensured Argentina survived a scare to reach the World Cup finals.
The 2014 runners-up began the day sixth in the group, knowing only a top-four place would see them qualify automatically for Russia.
They made a terrible start in Quito, conceding inside 38 seconds, but the Barcelona superstar led Argentina’s fight back to ensure they secured their place in next year’s tournament.
It was part of a remarkable night of football that saw:
Panama qualify for their first World Cup with a controversial goal in a 2-1 win over Costa Rica
The United States miss out on the tournament for the first time since 1986 after losing to Trinidad & Tobago
Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi step down after his side lost to Brazil to miss out on qualifying for their third consecutive World Cup
Portugal beat Switzerland to replace them at the top of their qualifying group but the Netherlands go out despite winning
Messi said it would have been “crazy” had Argentina not qualified for Russia 2018, but it took his intervention to ensure they reached their 12th consecutive World Cup.
Ecuador scored in the first minute, taking advantage of Argentina’s hesitancy, before Messi struck twice before half-time to calm some nerves.
His third, a lofted chip over goalkeeper Maximo Banguera, saw his country win for the first time in the Ecuadorian capital since 2001 and, crucially, reach next year’s World Cup.
Sampaoli warned against Argentina depending too much on Messi – despite it being a remarkable 11 months since any other Argentina player scored for the national team in a World Cup qualifier.
“Today, luckily, the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinean,” Sampaoli continued.
“We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo but today he brought his great ability. I told the group we should help him be in the World Cup.”