In the Argentina camp, there’s an encouraging line they’ve now heard from Lionel Messi a lot through this World Cup, but that has some lament to it. The 35-year-old has been repeatedly saying how much he is enjoying this World Cup, before occasionally offering a wistful caveat.
“I would have liked to enjoy more of the games with the national team.”
Some of that sentiment is down to the “s***” he says the team suffered after the shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. Some of it is down to everything that came before, and the circus around a significant number of those 171 international appearances. There were the three lost finals between 2014 and 2016, with Messi admitting to friends he has woken up in the middle of the night thinking of the Maracana eight years ago, when Argentina lost to Germany in the World Cup final. There was all the pressure, even some bad feeling.
“They have hit him so many times,” Cristian Romero says, “and yet he always gets back up again.”
Now, more than ever.
None of it will matter if Messi wins his first World Cup on Sunday and his country’s third. Everything will evaporate into the celebrations, and it would be made even greater by a rare redemption story.
Messi can banish the nightmares.
He is now one of a distinguished group of players to get a second chance at a World Cup final after losing a first, although “chance” is perhaps the wrong description given that the Argentina captain has done more than anyone on this list – and more than almost anyone in history – to deliver his team to this greatest of stages.
Messi will on Sunday seek to go one better, and become one of the 14 of 29 who lifted themselves from the most anguished defeat to lift the World Cup itself.
As respected as all of these names should be, none faced a final that was so much about them, not even Ronaldo. The great Brazilian’s 2002 redemption was more about injury and the personal trauma of 1998. It was also more of a procession given the quality of that German team. This France side are not like that, and offer one final obstacle to a truly fulfilled career; to the idea of completing the game itself.
As such, the sentiments of previous players in this situation aren’t really relevant to Messi. Only he can know what this is like, since his career has gone to a level beyond anyone else. There are times when it must seem it is all about him, but that’s because everyone has made it this way.
The obligation to get Messi his World Cup has almost singularly driven the Argentina campaign, uniting the squad for this unique moment in history. It has become much more important than the country’s 36-year wait for the trophy. World Cups come along every four years, after all. A player like Messi may never come along again.
A relatively moderate squad are all too conscious of this, particularly those like Julian Alvarez who used to wait for his idol’s autograph. “We know what Messi means for Argentines and for world football.”
This is another element that elevates a story that is at once so personal and universal. Messi’s story is like that of Stanley Matthews’s FA Cup final in 1953 but on a global scale. There can never have been such wide-scale will for one player to win the World Cup.
That is signified by how many in Brazil even want Messi to do it. He transcends rivalries as well as the World Cup. Take the words of one of the other players who recovered from final defeat, in Rivaldo.
“We no longer have Brazil or Neymar in this cup final, so I’m going with Argentina,” the 2002 champion posted. “I have no words for you, Leo Messi. You deserved to be world champion before but God knows all and he will crown you this Sunday. You deserve this title for the person you are and for the wonderful football you have always played.”
The last line is as significant as it is simple. The reason Messi is so widely adored is because of the purity of his play. He can do things with the ball that seem beyond anyone else, so excite people more than anything else. It’s an experience to watch him. Anyone who has done so will have had moments where you can’t help but be amazed, to just get up and applaud.
The effect of this has been seen throughout this World Cup, and not just with moments of play like the goals against Mexico and Australia or the assists against Netherlands and Croatia. So many interactions have reminded of the story of the Cameroon players with Diego Maradona in 1990. Then, Alphonse Yombi and Roger Feutmba saw Messi’s great predecessor in the tunnel of the San Siro and immediately started crying. That was Maradona’s aura. Now, opposition players like Australia’s Jackson Irvine say they are just privileged to be on the same pitch as Messi. His teammates, like Alex Mac Allister, say “it’s a source of pride for me to be beside him” and there’s an effusive emotion as they do so.
The post-game proceedings have been experiences in themselves, and not just because of moments like Messi berating Wout Weghorst with a line that has become a meme in Argentina: “What you looking at, fool.”
It always takes the Argentina players at least two hours to come out of the dressing room after a game, far longer than any other side, due to how they celebrate. It takes Messi the longest, as he is always last, but he has made a point of stopping with media every single time and talking at length.
You can imagine the sort of scrum this has created. You usually know Messi is coming by the stampede. With photographs banned in the post-match interview area due to broadcast rights, Fifa officials threaten journalists with bans if they try and get one, but so many are willing to risk it. Some try to get a selfie “with Messi” as he walks by, some just want any photo at all.
One journalist pleaded with a Fifa official taking his name: “I just want a photo for my son and I’ll never get the chance again.”
Some just want to be near him.
While this level of adulation has fostered ludicrously simple questions to Messi, just so it can be said he was asked one, the 35-year-old has cut a newly strident figure in media appearances. He has been assertive, and occasionally abrasive. That’s with journalists and towards opponents.
One reporter who knows him relatively well was told: “Do you want me to f*****g stop 50 times?”
Many journalists with similar relationships wouldn’t have been able to imagine him saying such words even a few years ago. He was long considered a “mute”, devoid of personality, a player who classically “led by example”. Messi now does that and much more. He is showing a new charisma, offering motivational speeches, setting the tone of the dressing room. When he found out that Mac Allister didn’t like teammates mocking his hair colour, Messi told them to stop. This is why so many around the Argentina squad are saying it’s “like 1986” and describing a “Maradona-like leader”.
This will for him to win isn’t universal, it should be said, and that goes beyond Cristiano Ronaldo’s online zealots.
Many have been put off by some of the aggressive behaviour that the Argentina team have found so rousing. They see it as “ugly”, particularly what happened with Louis van Gaal at the end of the quarter-final win over Netherlands. It should be stressed, mind, that the overwhelming feeling among the Dutch squad was one of understanding and respect. They know well you have to occasionally go to such ugly depths for the beauty of the World Cup, because they were willing to do it themselves. This just showed, as with Messi’s run-in with Australia’s Aziz Behich in the last-16, that he is up for a fight.
There is still something more problematic, though, that has sought to so cynically use that beauty and purity to his play.
Messi agreed to become a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia despite a letter pleading for him not to agree from families of the state’s prisoners of conscience. They never got a response.
Another huge sportswashing project, and another owned by Qatar, did get a response around the same time, though. In the summer of 2021, Messi agreed to join Paris Saint-Germain, literally going to the highest bidder.
Repeated sources talk of how money has always been a driving factor in his career, even if that is down to some of those around him. The fact Messi’s lucrative image crosses the Gulf blockade – as visible in Riyadh as he is Doha – emphasises this.
His face is everywhere. It means the purity of the football and the impurity of this competition can’t really be separated, since it has allowed the Qatari state to claim it. It has meant one of sport’s greatest figures has become one of sportswashing’s most powerful weapons.
It’s lamentable to think what impact even the slightest statement from Messi in support of migrant workers could have had. He has shirked a responsibility. If he does finally receive this long-desired winner’s medal, there is a strong argument it will be tainted.
That doesn’t just colour Messi’s World Cup, though. It has conditioned it. France may well have been partly responsible for the potential agent of their destruction, while Qatar had a direct hand in delivering him to Doha in this form.
A second season in Ligue 1 with PSG was probably crucial to Messi being so ready to take over this World Cup. It wasn’t simply that the French league is so forgiving, especially when you are at PSG. It was that he found the first season such a struggle. Messi was genuinely surprised by how physically aggressive it was, as he was often muscled off the ball. Those around him spoke of how it was “the worst season of his career”, and the analytics proved it.
Messi and his camp realised the need for the greatest change to his physical programme since 2014. The effects of that can be seen now, especially with how he so strongly held off Josko Gvardiol for that astounding run to seal the semi-final win over Croatia.
There was a symbolism to that, too. Here was Messi, now the grandest senior figure in the game, humiliating one of the best of the new generation of defenders. He even beat Gvardiol three times for good measure. That was partly a show of how he has lost pace but partly a show of how he can still do it, as much as he wants.
It was that talent, and that “best physical condition in years”, coming together with the experience of 15 years and a mind that can assimilate it all like no other. It has sent that football super intelligence to another level.
This is what struck Australia when trying to prepare for their last-16 match, even more so than Messi’s touch of genius to set up his goal.
“Like few others on Earth, he has a gravity,” says Paddy Steinfort, performance director for Football Australia. “He commands space and draws attention. On the pitch, as far as structure and strategy goes, we looked to drop a player closer to him to try and prevent him getting the ball as often as he had in the group stages. The closest analogy I can compare is the deployment of a ‘box and one’ defence in the NBA – a strategy to prevent Steph Curry from getting the ball in the first place.
“In terms of the physical considerations, it was knowing that he will walk and go at his own pace off the ball but, when he accelerates to receive or dribble, he can hit top speed of over 32kmph.”
This is what Irvine said.
“It’s his understanding of the game and how he picks and chooses his moments of when to come to life… that one little moment, that one half-metre you give him in the box.”
They have all added up to an individual campaign like few in history. This has undeniably been Messi’s World Cup, whether he wins it or not.
Roberto Baggio can testify to that from 1994. Messi has matched him and other such figures in his singular impact.
Record after record has been broken, from Lothar Matthaus’s appearances to Argentina’s highest goalscorer in World Cups. It is not just that he has finally scored in the knockout rounds, and added another two on top of that. It is the game-changing and eyebrow-raising nature of his influence. Messi’s highlight reel from this World Cup has been a series of moments of the highest class amid the highest stakes.
There was first the sublime drive against Mexico, that resuscitated and revitalised Argentina’s campaign. Running out of time and space, Messi put the ball in the only place he could behind Guillermo Ochoa. There was then that touch and finish against Australia, the 35-year-old again producing a goal that everyone has seen so many times but no one can stop. The pass for Nahuel Molina to score against Netherlands was simply perfect, the ball after a shift of the body as accurate as it was exquisite. That run against Croatia was then a throwback but also an illustration of his devastating present level. The noise in the crowd as it happened said enough. Alvarez, a support act for his own goal, said more.
“You always have to be ready for the pass because you know he can do anything with the ball.”
This is what defining a World Cup is. This is what a player really enjoying himself looks like. He will try anything because he feels so comfortable in himself. The victory in the 2021 Copa America has helped free Messi, removing the pressure to finally win an international tournament and ensuring this World Cup can be an aspiration rather than an obligation. The win over Mexico then released the tension in this World Cup, instead bringing a focused serenity.
That can best be seen in the penalties that have helped make him top scorer, a set-piece that had previously been the bane of his career. It remained remarkable that a player who has the best control of a ball than any player in history so struggled with a simple kick from 12 yards. So many high-profile misses reached a nadir in the penalty shoot-out loss to Chile at the end of the 2016 Copa America, leaving Messi in tears.
This time, not even Wojciech Szczesny’s penalty save for Poland could faze him. Messi continued as if nothing had happened, and continued taking the penalties. Three have since been scored.
All have been taken in different styles, emphasising this serenity. One was an almost casual strike into the side of the net. One was a classic poker face as he waited for the goalkeeper to move. The last was the perfect penalty, a drive right into the top corner of the net that was just unstoppable.
The fact it was against Dominik Livakovic, after so many Croatian attempts at distraction, made it all the better. Messi took the World Cup’s best penalty stopper out of the equation by almost taking the net off. He was the master of his own destiny. For now.
That final step still awaits, that final chance, the last dance. It can still go wrong, worse than before, as with Baggio. It might go joyously, as with Maradona.
Whatever happens will give rise to debates and discussions over the greatest ever. The truth is that can never be settled and doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the power of this story. This immoral World Cup can yet have an immortal narrative, which was precisely the calculation Qatar made. This goes beyond maths and the factual concerns about the hosts for Messi and Argentina, though. Only one thing matters. Only one ending will do.
“There’s a lot of years ahead for the next one and I don’t think I’ll make it,” Messi himself has said. “To finish it this way is the best.”
Messi has frequently been described as “a man possessed” throughout this World Cup, as if something greater has taken over him. It might yet take him to finally holding that trophy.
He mournfully walked past it in 2014. He now needs to make sure he gets to enjoy the moment, that there is no lament, no caveats. It all comes down to this, all builds up to this, in a way never seen in history.