West Ham United’s Pablo Zabaleta has denied that Lionel Messi fails to perform at the same level for Argentina as he does for Barcelona.
Messi has endured a dismal World Cup so far, seeing his penalty saved in Albiceleste’s 1-1 draw with Iceland before featuring in a 3-0 loss to Croatia.
Zabaleta played alongside Messi in the 2014 World Cup, which saw Argentina beaten by Germany in the final. In his BBC column, the right-back hailed the galvanising effect Messi has on team-mates.
“Leo gets criticised when he does not play well, but when he is not around — like when he briefly retired from international football in 2016 — there are people calling for him to come back,” said Zabaleta.
“As his team-mate, I can say without any doubts that we have always been a better team when he has been there.
“And those who say he does not perform for his country like he does for his club are wrong. When I played in the Argentina team with him, he was always the main player and the main man.”
According to the 33-year-old, Messi is suffering under the weight of expectations placed on him and the stress is affecting his performances at the World Cup.
“The happiest I saw Lionel Messi when I played alongside him for Argentina was in 2012 – he scored a hat-trick against Brazil in New York, and he played the whole game with freedom and a smile on his face,” Zabaleta revealed.
“His body language was completely the opposite before the Croatia game on Thursday. To see Leo looking so stressed and unhappy at this World Cup was a real worry.”
Argentina are gearing up for a crunch encounter against Nigeria on Tuesday, which will decide whether or not they progress to the last 16.