No, Lionel Messi didn’t require this. He deserved it, though.
He’s been haunted by the World Cup for far too long; it’s more of a force that crushes him than a reward that should be welcomed. With the help of Messi, the extraordinary became the norm. He had to deliver even more, though. He needed to offer the missing component. The mountains that Diego Maradona had conquered in 1986 had to be climbed by him. 36 years later, Messi paid a fitting homage to the player he would always be pitted against, whose departure in 2020 appeared to give this team the impetus they needed to win first South American, then global titles.
The similarities to their previous victory are startling. In a matter of seconds, they had a two-goal lead ripped from them, but their star player came through. Make no mistake: Messi, his teammates, Argentina, and the world as a whole have viewed this tournament through the prism of Maradona. Messi’s magnificence deserves to be recognized through its own prism.
Which of these tournaments was the greater individual achievement will unavoidably depend on the viewer, just like the argument over those two in their entirety. However, one could have claimed that comparing Messi to 1986 was unfair. With all due respect to Emiliano Martinez, Julian Alvarez, Angel Di Maria, and Alexis MacAllister for their tremendous performances, he shouldn’t have had to win the World Cup by himself, but he did. Before Messi, no player had ever scored in a round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal, or championship game.
Early on at Lusail, Messi appeared to be setting records at a rapid pace. the most World Cup appearances by a player in history. The majority of minutes soon after. Those achievements served as a reminder of what, in this column’s opinion, makes him the greatest of all time. No one else has been this amazing for this long, and for so much of the past 15 years, the finest player in the world. He did not rise steadily to the top or burn brilliantly before dying. He has served as the North Star by which all others are measured for virtually the entirety of his career.
Messi was just as influential at age 35 and 177 days as he had been when he was a teenager playing for Barcelona. He has undoubtedly changed since then, so why expend energy dribbling around a player when you can easily split a defence with a single pass? He is still the most trustworthy supplier of goals and opportunities on the earth, with perhaps one conceivable exception.
It was fitting that France rolled out the red carpet for his final dance. They pressed for the first time in this competition. It went about as well as you could anticipate for a new defensive strategy when it is being executed by at least one wide attacker who considers defending optional and a 35-year-old striker who was too slow a decade ago. What’s more, Didier Deschamps’ new game plan did little to prevent Messi from gaining possession of the ball as he dove deep, turned, and played the game-winning pass. He opened up the field for Di Maria to win the penalty kick from which he scored the first goal, and his interaction with MacAllister and Alvarez enabled his outstanding running mate to score the second.
Maybe Messi understood that those goals weren’t sufficient, that France could yet do better, and that he would be required again. He did save some energy, though, and it almost paid off when he repeatedly set up Lautaro Martinez to score Argentina’s third goal. However, his scramble was so inelegant that it may have been better for it not to be the game-winning goal.
Messi lacked nerve in crucial situations. He appeared to have forgotten that this was his final opportunity to win the largest prize. In the shootout, when he rolled the ball past Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham goalkeeper’s scrambling to the opposite side only served to highlight the finesse of the finish, the last major criticism leveled at him was that he froze on the international stage. It was evident that he had already provided an answer to those queries.
There are currently none remaining for him. There is nothing that will happen that will make him anything other than the finest. Football? It’s finished, mate.
Regardless of how you look at it, his argument is strong. He became the first player to win two Golden Balls for the tournament’s best player after scoring two goals in the championship game, passing Pele on the list of tournament’s top scorers. He now holds every significant honor that was previously open to him, with the exception of the Europa Leagues (Leo, there is still room for you at the Emirates Stadium if you so desire). Though there is still a long way to go, if he genuinely wants to stick around, he has the opportunity to accomplish 1,000 professional ambitions. The relentless pursuit of personal productivity has never been a factor in Messi’s excellence, though.
The moments that don’t always jump off the screen—the flicks, no-look passes, and awareness of space—are what supporters remember most about their first live Messi game. Those who attended the final undoubtedly saw them by the dozen.
When put in that perspective, comparing Messi to other football players appears absurd. He should be likened to Steven Spielberg, Michelangelo, or The Beatles. Like few others, he has made the masses happy. How fitting that he gets to say goodbye to his duties representing Argentina with the happiest of times for himself.