Lionel Messi did not need this. But he did deserve it.
For too long the World Cup has hung over him, more a crushing force than a prize to be embraced. Messi made the impossible into the ordinary. Still, he had to deliver more. He had to deliver that missing piece. He had to scale the heights Diego Maradona had summited in 1986. Thirty-six years on, Messi delivered a fitting tribute to the man he will always be set against, whose parting in 2020 seemed to provide this team with the propulsive force to become champions, first of South America and then the world.
The parallels with their last triumph are staggering. A two-goal lead wrenched from them in a matter of moments, only for their great player to deliver. Messi's greatness absolutely deserves to be seen through its own prism, but make no mistake: He, his teammates, Argentina and the world at large have viewed this tournament through the prism of Maradona.
Like the debate between those two in totality, which of these tournaments was the greater individual achievement will inevitably be in the eye of the beholder. But one could have argued that 1986 was an unreasonable standard to hold Messi to. No one should have to win a World Cup on their own but still – with all due respect to the outstanding contributions of Emiliano Martinez, Julian Alvarez, Angel Di Maria and Alexis MacAllister – he did. No player had ever scored in the group stages, round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal and final until Messi.
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At times early on in Lusail, it seemed like Messi was breaking records by the second. The most appearances ever by a player at the World Cup. Soon after, the most minutes. Those milestones were a reminder of just what makes him the greatest of all time, in this column's view. No one else has been this brilliant for this long, the best player in the world for so much of the last 15 years. He did not burn brightly and fade away or slowly ease his way to the pinnacle. For almost his entire career, he has been the North Star against which all others are judged.
At 35 years and 177 days of age, Messi was as transformative as he had been in his teenage years with Barcelona. Certainly, he is different now than he was then, why waste energy beating a man with a dribble when you can split an entire defense with one pass? But he is still, with one possible exception, the most reliable source of goals and chances on the planet.
It was appropriate that on his last dance, France rolled out the red carpet early on. For the first time in the tournament, they pressed. It went about as well as you might expect a new defensive plan to go when it is being carried out by at least one wide forward who considers defending optional and a 35-year-old striker who was too slow a decade ago. Crucially, Didier Deschamps' new masterplan did nothing to stop Messi getting the ball when he dropped deep, turning and playing the killer pass. He spread the play for Di Maria to win the penalty from which he scored the opener, his interplay with MacAllister and Alvarez helped unleash his great running mate for the second.
Perhaps Messi knew that those goals weren't enough, that France could only improve and that he would be needed again. Certainly, he held energy in reserve and nearly made it pay by teeing up Lautaro Martinez time and time again before he eventually scrambled in Argentina's third, so inelegant that perhaps it was only appropriate that it should not serve as the match-winning moment.
In the clutch moments Messi was nerveless. The fact that this was his last chance to claim the biggest prize seemingly locked away at the back of his mind. The last great criticism of him was that he froze on the international stage, as he rolled the ball beyond Hugo Lloris in the shootout, the Tottenham goalkeeper's scrambling back to the other side only serving to heighten the perfection of the finish. It was clear that he had long since answered those questions.
There are none left for him now. There is nothing that can follow that will change the fact that he is the greatest. Football? Completed it, mate.
However you want to slice it, his case is overwhelming. His two goals in the final took him beyond Pele in the list of the World Cup's greatest scorers, the first player to win two Golden Balls for the best player at the conclusion. He now has every major honor that has been available to him (though no Europa Leagues ... Leo, there's a space for you at the Emirates Stadium if you want it). If he really fancies hanging around, there is the chance to reach 1,000 career goals, though there is a long way to go there. Anyway, Messi's greatness has never been about the remorseless pursuit of personal output. A generation didn't fall in love with him because his numbers look great on Transfermarkt.
When fans see their first Messi game in person, it is the moments that don't always burst off the scree: The flicks, no-look passes and appreciation of space. Doubtless, those at the final saw them by the dozen.
In that context, it seems ludicrous to view Messi against footballing peers. He is to be compared to The Beatles, Michelangelo or Steven Spielberg. He has brought joy to the masses like few others. How appropriate that he gets to sign off from Argentina duty with the most joyous of moments for himself.
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