On a heady December night in Qatar, Lionel Messi completed football. For the 45 million Argentinians and the many million more across the globe who sport blue and white every four years, Messi finally delivered on the grandest stage of all.
Four years after Argentina’s tame exit in Russia, Diego Maradona cast his heir apparent out of the pantheon of footballing Gods.
“We shouldn’t deify Messi any longer. He’s Messi when he plays for Barcelona,” Maradona had said in 2018, in a scathing indictment of a man he had called his spiritual successor on countless occasions. “Messi is Messi when he wears that shirt and he’s another Messi with Argentina. He’s a great player but he’s not a leader. It’s useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game.”
It was perhaps the disappointment of 2018 coming out, but here we are in 2022... on Sunday, Messi, playing great football *and* leading from the front, took Argentina to their third Fifa World Cup title in one of the best finals in recent history.
Clash for the ages
Even before a ball was kicked at the Lusail Stadium, there was a collective feeling that Messi would finally add the only trophy missing from his enviable collection. On the eve of the tournament, Spain manager Luis Enrique said, “If Spain doesn’t win the World Cup, I would like Argentina to win it because of Messi. It would be unfair for Messi to retire without winning a World Cup.”
Maybe even some of the French wanted Messi to win the World Cup and France manager Didier Deschamps was aware of that sentiment ahead of the final. Indeed not many outside France would have wanted Les Bleus to retain their title.
Argentina were off the block in a flash causing chaos in the French ranks with their relentless pressing. The trio of Messi, Julian Alvarez and the recalled Angel di Maria were sublime in attack. Di Maria, in particular, was unplayable in the first half and he provided Argentina the perfect start by winning the penalty that Messi converted.
La Albiceleste turned on the style 13 minutes later with a devastating counter-attacking goal that seemingly knocked the wind out of the French sails. Deschamps responded by making two substitutions before halftime and changing the shape of his team. And yet it rarely looked like the French would trouble Emiliano Martinez in the Argentine goal.
For Messi to suffer for years only to cruise to victory in his final World Cup match felt unbelievable. Surely it wasn’t going to be that easy? Surely the best French team in a generation will hit back harder?
Step forward their main man.
A lot of focus ahead of the match was on the battle between Messi and Kylian Mbappe. For more than a decade, Messi was accustomed to being the alpha of his Barcelona team. But at Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentine has seen himself play second fiddle to the wildly talented Frenchman who, rumour has it, has the last say in every footballing decision made by the club.
At the Lusail Stadium, Mbappe gave Messi and the world yet another glimpse of his talent with two goals separated by 97 seconds to haul France back into the match. The second goal, especially, was masterful and in no time, the match turned on its head.
Like Messi has done countless times for club and country, Mbappe single-handedly took France to the brink. While some may have wanted a Portugal-Argentina final to end the G.O.A.T debate, Mbappe, football’s next best thing, was the opponent Messi needed to vanquish to take football’s ultimate crown.
And so In the dance of these two superstars, Mbappe took a decisive step ahead. He took the match by the scruff of its neck towards the end of 90 minutes after being a spectator for much of the night.
In extra-time, Messi once again gave Argentina the lead only for Mbappe to do one better and become only the third player to score a hat-trick in the final of a Fifa World Cup after Geoff Hurst (1966) and Carli Lloyd (2015).
In that period of French dominance, one could not help but think about Messi’s many disappointing losses in recent years. The three torturous years where he led Argentina to the brink of victory at the 2014 World Cup and then the 2015 and 2016 Copa America championships. The two demoralising Remontada to Roma and Liverpool in back-to-back Champions League seasons with Barcelona.
But this is a different Messi. A Messi who is enjoying playing football for his country again after ending a long wait for a title with Argentina at the 2021 Copa America and the 2022 Finalissima. The shackles that had bound Messi for so long at the international stage are finally off.
“Having won decompresses you a lot, it gives you peace of mind. This allows the people to be less anxious and fretting over results,” Messi had said before the tournament kicked off.
This is a Messi who leads from the front like Maradona wanted him to for all those years. Be it delivering a rousing team talk at the Copa America final or standing up to a man twice his size and calling him a fool, this is a Messi who is finally relishing leading his country. A Messi whose shoulders do not slump from the weight of expectations.
It has helped that Messi has gone from shouldering the expectations of veterans and contemporaries in the team to leading a bunch of players who have idolised him for years. In Qatar, Messi had a team which wanted to win the World Cup more for him than for themselves.
“If we won a World Cup, I would be more happy for Messi, than for myself,” said midfielder Leandro Paredes ahead of the tournament. After Messi announced his international retirement following the devastating 2016 Copa America loss, a then 15-year-old Enzo Fernandez wrote an impassioned letter hoping to convince his idol to change his mind. Six years on, Fernandez has seen his idol call him a “spectacular player” and win the award for the Best Young Player in Qatar.
This generation of Argentine stars did not know when to give up. It is why they picked themselves up and went again in extra time after the Mbappe show threatened to derail the dream.
“This is a very intelligent and wise squad. We know how to read the game in every moment. We know how to suffer when it is necessary, to have the ball when it’s needed, to press, to make recovery runs,” Messi had said after the feisty clash against Netherlands.
It was why the thousands of Argentine fans at the Lusail never stopped singing about messrs Maradona and Messi. If only Maradona were alive to see Messi nail his spot alongside him in the pantheon of footballing greats...
On a dreamy Sunday night, Messi joined Pele and Maradona as the greatest to have ever played the beautiful game. The Holy Trinity of football is complete.