Messi gears up to deliver glory in his last act with Argentina

Published December 14, 2022
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after Julian Alvarez scores their third goal on Dec 13 during the FIFA World Cup 2022 semi-final against Croatia. — Reuters
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after Julian Alvarez scores their third goal on Dec 13 during the FIFA World Cup 2022 semi-final against Croatia. — Reuters

Argentina’s football has always been about deity and devotion; love transcending to passion with madness at its climax. At the World Cup in Qatar, there’s been a restoration of faith in one man who they hope will end their long wait for the title and fulfil his destiny of becoming a champion of the world and attaining eternal greatness.

Lionel Messi is one game away from achieving exactly that, yet there lingers a strong feeling of predestination in the desert. The whole world will pause to witness that moment in the final on Sunday.

It couldn’t have been set up so perfectly as it is. Messi showed he’s a mere mortal as he took a step towards immortality in Argentina’s semi-final victory over Croatia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday night.

Early on, Messi had clutched his left hamstring several times before he turned on the style to inspire Argentina to a 3-0 victory, scoring once and setting up another for Julian Alvarez — who got the other two goals, and reach the World Cup final for the second time in his career. At 35, this is his last chance and Messi confirmed that’s the case just before he boarded the bus back to the team hotel.

It had been a busy few hours for Messi after the match had finished. While his teammates celebrated on the pitch; dancing and reliving the moment, Messi was doing the pitch-side interview. He then went to the dressing room to join his teammates in another moment of celebration before sharing an emotional moment with Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni — the side now within touching distance of delivering Argentina’s third World Cup title and a first since 1986. Tears in their eyes, Scaloni told Messi: “Thank you!” As they embraced, Messi said, “I love you!”

Still in his top, the blue and white colours of his team, he was ushered to the press conference room to speak on his man-of-the-match performance. “I have no clue,” he would say.

“What I know is how much I’m enjoying this moment. Luckily, I feel good, I feel strong to face every single game. We’ve made huge sacrifices. Personally, I felt really happy throughout the whole tournament, and I still do now. Luckily, I’ve managed to help the team get the results we wanted.”

This reincarnation of Messi is different from the previous ones. There is a vivid sense of liberation, which some attribute to the fact that Diego Maradona’s brooding presence is no longer there. Maradona, the man idolised all over the world, led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986. After Argentina’s exit in the round of 16 at the last World Cup in Russia, Maradona — who died two years ago — said that Argentina shouldn’t “deify Leo any longer”.

Look at the Argentina fans now. Messi means everything. Eight years after his final heartbreak in Brazil at the hands of Germany, Messi has overtaken Maradona and then Gabriel Batistuta to become Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup with his penalty against Croatia taking him to 11.

Last year, he inspired Argentina to the Copa America title as they became South American champions for the first time since 1993. He has a group that rallies around him and he’s appreciative of that.

Receiving the man-of-the-match award from a close friend and former team-mate Sergio Aguero, Messi said he would like to give it to Alvarez, the 22-year-old who will be tasked with leading Argentina into the future after Messi.

That future comes soon, after one more game.

Pantheon of greats

It was about two and a half hours after the game had finished that Messi, showered and freshened up — Argentina’s bright blue training jersey replacing the match shirt, arrived at the mixed zone, his calm demeanour in evidence as reporters scrambled to get their microphones close to him.

Here came the confirmation. “I am proud to be able to finish my World Cup journey playing this final,” Messi would say in Spanish. “What I’m experiencing is exciting. Surely Sunday will be my last game in a World Cup. It will be many years before the next one [2026] and I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. So I hope I can finish in the best way.”

Asked about becoming Argentina’s top goalscorer at the World Cup, he would go on to add: “It’s all well and good but the important thing is to be able to achieve the group objective, which is the most beautiful thing of all. We’re just one step away, after fighting hard, and we’re going to give everything to try to make it happen this time.”

If it happens, it will launch Messi into the pantheon of all-time greats; World Cup trophies have always been used to measure that. His performance on Tuesday; his brilliant outmanoeuvring of Josko Gvardiol to set up the third goal for Alvarez with 20 minutes to go, saw calls for the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ debate between him and his longtime nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo to be settled for now. Scaloni feels Messi is already the G.O.A.T.

“Sometimes it can look like we only say that as Argentinians but I don’t have any doubt [he’s the best],” Scaloni said in his post-match press conference. “Every time he plays it’s a huge source of motivation for his teammates. There’s nothing left to say about Messi, it’s a privilege to have him.”

Argentina’s victory ended the hopes of Croatia’s own talisman; 37-year-old Luka Modric. Croatia protested the awarding of the penalty that saw Messi give Argentina the lead in the 34th minute but nonetheless praised the Argentina great. “He’s having an amazing tournament and he’s showing his greatness and quality,” Modric told reporters.

Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic termed Messi the “best in the world”.

“He was dangerous and he has the quality,” Dalic said at the news conference. “He put in a high level of performance and it was the true Messi we expected to see.”

Penalty practice

It’s the insatiable desire to win the World Cup that is seeing Messi put in these performances. There has been a lot of focus on making sure that this time he doesn’t come short. Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic had been identified as a threat for his penalty-saving heroics in leading his side to victories over Japan and Brazil.

If it was going to come to penalties, Messi was going to be the one taking them. He needed the perfect plan and for it, he called upon Argentina goalkeepers Emiliano Martinez and Geronimo Rulli for advice.

“Leo has a lot more experience than us but he listens to us to help make a decision,” Martinez, Argentina’s number one, told reporters in the early hours of Wednesday morning. “We analysed that Livakovic was very good with penalties closer to the ground so the idea was to hit them over him.”

When Messi got the penalty, he did exactly that. The glare of the world on him, he found the roof of the net to set Argentina on their way, and his desire to win is radiating through the squad.

“We play for our country but for us, Leo is our captain, our leader, he’s like an older brother, few know what he does to always be the best,” said midfielder Rodrigo de Paul, who’s only second to Messi among outfield players who’ve played most minutes for Argentina. Messi has played every minute, alongside goalkeeper Martinez.

When the final whistle was blown, Messi bowed down with his hands on his knees in the centre circle, looking on as his teammates celebrated ahead of him on the pitch. Some weight off his shoulders but the pressure of the final to come.

Defender Cristian Romero then ran up to him and lifted him in the air.

“Messi is a reference point for all of us,” Romero told reporters. “We are grateful to have him. He is always up for more. He’s been criticised so much, at times unjustifiably, yet he gets up again to seek new challenges.”

Last challenge

The final challenge comes on Sunday. It’s this title that’s kept him pushing on, forcing him to return to the national team after he’d announced international retirement after Argentina’s loss in the Copa America final in 2016.

But he returned and, with stellar performances, did away with the questions about not turning up for Argentina as much as he turned up for his former club Barcelona. After the semi-final, Messi was told by an Argentinean television reporter that the mark he’d left on the lives of people in his country was beyond winning any World Cup.

Argentina, though, are hoping for the perfect ending. “The best Messi is always the one that is yet to come,” midfielder Leandro Paredes told reporters.

The world hopes to see the best version on Sunday.

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