Lionel Messi was “counting down the days” until the start of the 2022 World Cup. He was so excited. But nervous too. Argentina were on a 36-game unbeaten run but that had only intensified the pressure on the recently crowned Copa America winners and their talismanic captain, who admitted on the eve of the tournament, “We are a little scared because we want it to go well.”
Truth be told, though, Messi needed it to go well. His World Cup legacy was on the line. Granted, he had lifted the Golden Ball at the 2014 tournament in Brazil but it was a pyrrhic victory after the most frustrating of final defeats to Germany.
Messi’s inability to deliver in the biggest game in football was used as a stick with which to undermine his claim on the title of the greatest of all time, evidence that he could not be considered in the same class as Diego Maradona or Pele.
‘A sad day’
The criticism only intensified after Argentina’s Qatari campaign got off to the worst possible start, with a stunning 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia.
“They are all in pain,” coach Lionel Scaloni said of his shell-shocked players as they sat in silence in the dressing room after the biggest upset in World Cup history.
They weren’t the only ones struggling to process the defeat. One Argentine journalist could be found in tears in the mixed zone after the game.
“A sad day,” as Scaloni conceded. “But there’s no other choice but to get up and move on.” And they did. Thanks to Messi.
World Cup record-breaker
He told his team-mates that they needed to “be more united than ever”. “We did not expect this,” he conceded, “but [what happens next] depends on us.”
In truth, it depended on him. Argentina needed him to deliver. And he did, in each and every game as the Albiceleste went from the brink of an embarrassingly early elimination to the ultimate glory.
Having never never previously scored in the knockout stage, Messi scored in every single round from the last 16 on, breaking one record after another.
He also registered two assists during that run, in the quarter-final win over Netherlands and against Croatia in the last four, that took the breath away.
The first saw him play a pass to Nahuel Molina that no other player would have seen, let alone completed. For the second, he skinned arguably the tournament’s best defender, Josko Gvardiol – a man 15 years his junior.
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‘It’s surreal how good he is’
Tellingly, Gvardiol wasn’t in the least bit embarrassed by being taken to the cleaners by a 34-year-old. On the contrary, he proudly told reporters after Croatia’s 3-0 loss in Lusail, “Today and tomorrow I will be able to tell the children that I marked Messi for 90 minutes.”
Such platitudes become commonplace in Qatar, where Messi made further history by being named man of the match in five games at the same World Cup.
Keanu Baccus compared him to a “wax statue”. “He looks fake on the field,” the audibly awestruck Australian admitted. “It’s surreal how good he actually is.”
It was also hugely significant that even before the final against France, Les Bleus boss Didier Deschamps confessed that many of his compatriots were hoping that Messi would end up on the winning side, while Rivaldo echoed the sentiments of many Brazilians when he argued that the Argentine deserved to lift the trophy “for the person you are and for the wonderful football you have always played.”
From silent skipper to combative captain
It wasn’t just about the way Messi performed, though, it was the way he acted. Qatar completed his transition from silent skipper to combative captain.
“Angry Messi”, as Pablo Zabaleta called him, reminded joyous Argentinians of Maradona. He’d always played like El Pibe, now he was leading like him too. Hardly surprising, then, that the rest of the squad rallied around him.
Rodrigo De Paul became his ‘bodyguard’, while Emiliano Martinez repeatedly referred to the rest of the team as “lions who fight for Leo”.
In that sense, victory was arguably inevitable for a tight-knit group of players led by a man intent on proving himself the greatest of all time.
Savouring every second with Scaloni’s squad
Lusail on the evening of December 18 really did take on the appearance and atmosphere of the coronation of a king, the fairy tale ending for a player that had been left so heartbroken by failure in finals that he retired from international duty in 2016.
It felt, then, like the perfect way to bring the curtain down on his international career. And yet Messi is still going. Why? Because he’s loving life right now.
He once said that he was no longer enjoying international football; now he’s savouring every second he spends with Lionel Scaloni’s band of brothers. Consequently, he’s now set his sights on a successful Copa America defence in the United States next summer. After that, who knows?
MLS may be a higher level than the average fan thinks, and the schedule can be punishing because of the travel time, but Messi’s decision to leave Europe should allow him to prolong his career.
At the very least, he’s already far happier at Inter Miami than he ever was at Paris Saint-Germain.
The idea that he underperformed at the Parc des Princes is a misconception. Last season, for example, only four players across Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues were involved inmore goals than Messi.
The problem was, though, that he came to personify PSG’s problems in the eyes of the supporters. Now, there’s no denying that he must take his share of the blame for failing miserably to build a bond with the fans.
But he was rather unfairly made a scapegoat for QSI’s unhealthy obsession with star signings, particularly when one considers Neymar spent more time partying than playing, while Kylian Mbappe embarked upon the ultimate power trip.
Messi, therefore, felt mistreated, claiming that he was “the only world champion that didn’t have recognition at his club”. It’s obviously a very different story in Miami, where he was treated like a god even before leading the club to Leagues Cup glory, and is surrounded by his old Barca buddies. That can only be construed as a positive from Argentina’s perspective.
A World Cup swansong?
Shortly after the World Cup win, Messi said there was a little chance of him playing on until 2026, but Leandro Paredes revealed that his team-mate has changed his tune a tad, and is “not ruling anything out”.
And why would he? Even at 36 years of age, he remains the best player in the world. He has just won an eighth Ballon d’Or and a seventh GOAL50. Could he win more? Absolutely. After all, nothing about Messi makes much sense. He’s always been a miracle-worker, defying logic on a daily basis.
What’s more, the pressure is off. Messi no longer needs to be scared of anyone or anything. Thanks to his exploits in Qatar, there is nothing left to prove. The GOAT debate is over. The fear of failure is gone. He is finally free to have fun – and he’s been doing precisely that with Argentina and Inter Miami.
Don’t be surprised, then, if he does decide to play in the next World Cup. Indeed, he might already be counting down the days…