Long after Qatar 2022, commentator Peter Drury’s words “One. More. Messi. Moment” will be remembered fondly by football fans.
It came just after the hour-mark in Argentina’s must-win match against Mexico with the score still 0-0. Lionel Messi scored a wonderful goal from distance on a night where he and his team were facing the prospect of leaving the tournament at the group stage if they stumbled. They didn’t. Messi didn’t let them. It was a night of relief, first and foremost.
And so some days out from the defeat against Saudi Arabia, shortly after which Messi called the legions of La Albiceleste fans to keep the faith, Argentina will leave Qatar... not after the group stage, not during the knockouts, not with tears (well, maybe with some tears), but as World Champions. Argentina, for the third time. Messi, for the first time.
And through it all, we were witness to plenty more Messi moments. We will watch the goals and assists (oh, those assists!) in highlight reels for years and decades to come. “Hey grandchild, let me tell you about the time Messi made us marvel in Qatar...”
But briefly, let’s talk about a couple of non-goal moments.
Against Australia in the round of 16, early in the second half, he went on a mazy run. Beating defenders for fun, gliding past the men trying to stop him desperately. You could close your eyes, listen to the match and know the moment Messi touched the ball and did something cool with it. The volume automatically went up a few notches. Sure, the move didn’t result in a goal but it was like watching a young Messi, long-haired and all, strut his stuff. (Maybe that Messi would have finished the move too but hey...)
Another moment is a bit of information that was relayed to us on the Sports18 broadcast. We were told before the Australia match, that after Messi missed the penalty against Poland in the group stage clash earlier in the tournament, thousands of fans behind the goal did the bowing-down gesture to the great man. It didn’t matter to them at that moment evidently that a crucial penalty was not converted.
As Messi finished the tournament with 10 goal contributions (seven goals and three assists), he wasn’t just a 35-year-old footballer who once used to be really good. You could have forgiven him for that too, really. He had earned that much. But he still is that good to make it to the national squad and don the captain’s armband on merit and more often than not be the best player on the pitch.
Here he was leading from the front, as the captain and the team’s best player. Here he was, picking his moments to shine but shining as bright as he ever has when he did so.
That the final would legitimately be a contender for the greatest tussle for the title in the tournament’s history just added to how special this was for Messi. Every epic sporting night needs two to tango. And so Kylian Mbappe stepped up to make it an occasion worthy of the grandest stage. Teammates at Paris Saint-Germain, opposing protagonists on this night in Qatar, they each made sure whoever came out on top, it would be after a dance for the ages. Mbappe, who will turn 24 two days after the final, scored a World Cup final hat-trick. Messi claimed the crown.
Golden ball in his hands, a kiss on his lips
The photograph of Messi staring in the general direction of the World Cup trophy in 2014 while he was called upon to receive the Golden Ball is unforgettable. Google “Messi 2014 golden ball photos Maracana” and you will see the images of a broken man, not wanting any part of the occasion. Best player of the tournament? Pfft. That is not the trophy he wanted to be holding that night at the iconic stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
At Lusail Stadium on Sunday night, he held the Golden Ball again. Best player of the tournament, again. But the moment he received that award, he slowly walked towards the World Cup trophy. He stood in front of it, soon to be his and his teammates’ to lift aloft, bent forward and gave it a kiss. With a smile on his face. Not staring at it yearningly, but with the glee of the man about to complete his life’s quest to hold what has always been dear to him. He rubbed the top of the trophy, and kissed it again. Mission accomplished.
Late into the night, with adrenaline still pumping, a thought occurred.
World over, journalists and bloggers and fans and whoever has a social media account, will have words to describe this night... these moments. But what could one possibly say that is completely new and original? What could we write that does not verge on the cliched?
And then it hit. Words are all we have to feel close to this moment. To describe Lionel Messi. Not just to admire from afar one of the greatest athletes of all time to win the trophy he coveted, but to remember how it unfolded as a spectacle. Words that might not amount to great prose (at least for most of us trying) but enough to appreciate what a special night it was, to put it on record somewhere to revisit later. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter if we are unable to do justice to it. On a web-page somewhere, or maybe in our diaries, words will bear witness... that we are just grateful.
As writers of sport, we are often reminded (rightly so) to avoid generalisations, to not make sweeping statements... but it would not be an exaggeration to say that at different points in the tournament, almost every single one of us who followed it, were thankful that Messi could provide us with magic moments.
Thankful that he was there to score great goals... but to also miss and at times struggle, offering us helpful reminders that he too is one of us, born on the same planet, a human being. Thankful that despite his legs not always working as fast as his beautiful brain, he kept finding ways to make things tick for his team. Thankful that he chose football and graced this beautiful game. And thankful most of all, that he existed.
We saw Lionel Messi play football in our times. That, really, would have been enough. But then we also saw him lift the World Cup trophy finally at the end of a glorious match.
And so we finish this by borrowing words from the post on Roger Federer’s Instagram account: “Time and time again you, Leo Messi, have redefined greatness. It’s a privilege to watch you.”