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Messi, Argentina & World Cup – a prophecy fulfilled at last

With FC Barcelona, the little magician had won everything there was to win. But until last Sunday.

By Taha Anis |
PUBLISHED December 25, 2022
KARACHI:

As the wonderkids gathered around Barcelona’s La Masia, the world’s finest football academy, they were introduced to a quiet little 13-year-old with a growth deficiency. This, they were told, was their new clubmate from a land far away who was “very, very special”, recalls La Masia graduate Marc Valiente. Another wonderkid, Cesc Fàbregas, remembers facing that quiet little kid in his first training session and being confident of taking the ball off him when they came one-on-one. Then that quiet little kid ran at Fàbregas with the ball and Fàbregas, who would go on to become one of the finest midfielders of his generation, immediately realised that this kid “was not normal”.

Four years later, when Ronaldinho introduced Kobe Bryant to this kid, he told the basketball legend that he will now be introducing him to the guy who will become the greatest player of all time. Not too long after that, two legends were talking before a friendly between giants Barcelona and Juventus. One, Samuel Eto’o, warned the other, Patrick Vieira, about this kid and told him that one day it would seem like every player who came before him was playing a different sport.

From very early on, it was painfully clear to everyone who watched him that this kid was a generational talent. And so little Lionel Messi — so introverted that Fàbregas said they initially thought he was a mute — grew up being told that he had a destiny to fulfil. Lionel Messi — remember the name. A prophecy foretold, the great coming upon us.

Messi would go on to become part of club football’s greatest-ever team, winning everything there was to win with Barcelona. Ten league titles, seven Spanish cups, four Champions League trophies, and six Ballon d’Ors. At Barcelona, Messi became the greatest club player there ever was. And yet, for the Argentine there always remained unfinished business in that famous Albiceleste shirt. While Messi had to carry the weight of his own greatness in Spain, for those back home in Argentina, he carried an even greater burden — he had certain shoes to fill. And boy were those shoes big. The comparisons were inevitable. The same diminutive frame — roughly five-and-a-half feet of splendid untamed mischief. Controlled by the same supreme scheming brain. The same country. The same club. The best left foot the world had seen since, well, him.

Messi was born in 1987, a year after what can only be described as Diego Armando Maradona’s World Cup. He grew up with a steady diet of stories and legends of the larger-than-life figure. The comparisons had begun a long time ago and soon the demands followed. Go on, win us a World Cup all on your own like he did. After all, is it really too much to demand the Herculean from Hercules?

But with the Argentinian national team, unearthly football did not come as easily for Messi as it did with Barcelona. There always seemed an insurmountable communication gap between Messi and the others who wore the Sky Blue and White — a great divide, always slightly out of sync, wavelengths never truly matching, the telepathic connections formed with the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta never quite recreated.

Messi faced his first World Cup heartache as a teenager in 2006, when Argentina were knocked out by Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals. Four years later, Messi was in the prime of his career at the age of 23 and already among the greatest footballers the world had ever seen. With Maradona as the coach and the best squad Argentina had had in ages, the stage was set. The script was written but those darned Germans tend to not read the script. Some questionable selections and tactics led to a 4-0 demolition. What was meant to be a fairy tale ended up in humiliation and a precursor of what was to come for the next decade.

The hurt would deepen four years later. With the 2014 final locked at 0-0, Germany manager Joachim Löw sent on Mario Götze from the bench. Before sending him on, Löw told Götze to go out there and show the world he was better than Messi. One volley with an outstretched left-foot later, Götze would win the final and cement his place in folklore. For Messi, more heartache would follow, with two back-to-back Copa America final defeats.

The Argentinians turned on him, shouting in their fury that he cared more about Barcelona than he did for Argentina. The vitriol reached a crescendo when he missed the crucial last spot-kick in the second final. The pain too much, Messi would walk away. Four finals, zero wins, a destiny unfulfilled, a nation’s hope lost somewhere in the rubble. “It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it so I think it’s over,” a disconsolate Messi would explain when announcing his retirement.

And so there hung a caveat over the best footballer there ever was. The more magic he produced with Barcelona, the louder the critics pointed at his shortcomings with the national team. To be the greatest ever, went the argument, you have to perform at the greatest stage. Messi would take back his retirement in time to drag Argentina to the 2018 World Cup. There they would run into a Kylian Mbappé inspired France — pace and power so irrepressible that no team could live with them. Yet another defeat, yet another heartache.

It wasn’t just Messi though, it seemed that the Sky Blue and White itself was cursed. So cursed in fact, that Argentinian left-back Nicolás Tagliafico admitted no one wanted the manager’s job before rookie Lionel Scaloni took the role. Scaloni came in with a mantra: the sun will rise tomorrow. A simple message but a powerful one — serving to remove the pressure from Messi’s shoulders. When he took over, he insisted that Argentina must learn to play without Messi, partly due to the uncertainty surrounding Messi’s international career and partly to reduce Argentina’s Messidependencia.

But if you have to depend on a player then Messi isn’t a bad player to depend on. When the Copa America was controversially shifted from Argentina to bitter rivals Brazil due to Covid issues, Messi — a great believer in destiny — told his teammates before the final against the hosts that “coincidences don’t exist”. In that tournament, Messi produced a Copa America performance for the ages as Argentina won their first major title in decades. The Argentine finished the tournament with the most goals, the most assists, the most chances created and the most successful dribbles. Messidependencia isn’t a bad ailment to have.

And then along came the big one, the one they said Messi must win. Argentina came into the World Cup on a 36-match unbeaten run. All they had to do was defeat Saudi Arabia in the opening game and they would equal Italy’s record of longest unbeaten international streak in history. Football is a funny old game. Argentina 1 Saudi Arabia 2. Suddenly every game became a must-win. Fail and it would all be irrevocably lost. The sun would rise again tomorrow but it would rise to find Messi’s World Cup dream forever shattered.

After the Saudi Arabia defeat, Messi sent a message to the supporters: have faith, we won’t let you down. Mexico and Poland were handled with relative ease to take Argentina into the knockouts when a shock group exit was on the cards. The biggest, or perhaps the only remaining, criticism of Messi had been his poor World Cup performances. In five editions, he had no goals and only one assist in a knockout game. By Messi standards, this was not right. In Messi fashion, this was about to be corrected. A typical finish, the ball passed into the bottom corner, against Australia meant that Messi did in 35 minutes what he had not managed to do in the previous four World Cups. This time around, things would be different.

Argentina’s modus operandi was clear, start strong, score two goals, and then sit back. It just about worked against Australia as they held on for a 2-1 win. It nearly backfired against the Netherlands when two late Dutch goals meant that the game had to go to a penalty shootout. It worked wonders against last edition’s finalist Croatia, who were kept at arm’s length.

And it seemed to be working like a charm in the final for 79 minutes until Mbappé happened. Two goals in two minutes, an unerring penalty, and the most iconic volley of a football since another Frenchman by the name of Zinedine Zidane swung his left foot against Leverkusen in 2001, and France were back in it. A devastating one-two from an astonishing player and what had seemed like a simple Argentina win sprang into life and blossomed into the greatest game of football ever played.

The extra-time was a wonderfully open affair and it seemed fitting that perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing attacker in the history of the game would cap his crowning glory with the ugliest goal he has ever scored (see: football is a funny old game). And still Mbappé — fast-twitch muscle upon fast-twitch muscle, steel springs where others merely have flesh and bone — would not be denied. The first hat-trick in a World Cup final since 1966, completed two minutes from time, meant that if nothing else, he would finish as the tournament’s top scorer.

Mbappé had said before the World Cup that South American football was not as advanced as European football. That stuck in South America’s craw, and they had a point to prove. Now, after 11 final meetings between Europe and South America, the score reads 8-3 in favour of the South Americans.

For all their Messidependencia, this may be the best support cast Messi has ever had. No player, no matter how good, can ever win a football match all on his own. And one by one Messi’s teammates stepped up to the plate.

When Messi retired, dejected and heartbroken in 2016, a 15-year-old boy from San Martin tweeted to Messi, telling him that it was the Argentinian fans who had let Messi down rather than the other way around, urging him to think about staying even though they did not deserve him. “Play for fun, because when you’re having fun, you have no idea how much fun you’re making us. Thank you and forgive us,” tweeted the young boy. Little would that boy have known that six years later, he would have the pleasure of watching Messi have fun alongside him or that he, Enzo Fernández, would win the young player of the tournament award.

Argentinian goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, who missed the birth of his child a year before during their Copa America campaign, had said before the tournament that he wants to die for Messi. He didn’t have to die for his captain, but he certainly had to grow for him. As Randal Kolo Muani bore down on his goal with seconds to go, Martínez grew and grew, until the French striker saw nothing but darkness and Martínez. The goalkeeper sprawled himself, appearing bigger than Qatar itself, and produced if not the greatest save in footballing history then certainly its most meaningful. After that there was only ever going to be one winner in the penalty shootout — not Messi, not Mbappé, not France captain Hugo Lloris, but Emiliano Martínez, that unparalleled master of mind-games and shithousery.

Then there was Ángel Di María, maybe the best egoless football player on the planet, yet again performing delivering on the big stage. Di María had won the U20 World Cup alongside Messi in 2005 and here they both were, 17 long years later, scoring in the World Cup final and lifting the real thing together.

There was Julián Álvarez, who had once asked Messi for a picture as a young kid and was now lifting the trophy alongside him as his partner-in-crime up front. There was Rodrigo De Paul, dubbed Messi’s bodyguard, who hid a note in Messi’s room before the Saudi Arabia game promising his captain that Argentina will win the World Cup come December 18. There was Alexis MacAllister, whose father played alongside Maradona, and who continuously argues with his father about who the superior player is. There was Tagliafico, who said if you don’t suffer, it doesn’t count. There was even Sergio Agüero, the retired legend who shared a room with Messi before the final — just like they always had for nearly two decades during international duty. There was Scaloni, Messi’s teammate in the 2006 World Cup and his manager in 2022.

But most importantly, there was Lionel Messi, fulfilling a prophecy foretold all those years ago. Hercules has finally completed his labours. Football is at peace.

Taha Anis is a freelance writer and journalist. All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer.