1003 games, 793 goals and counting, seven Ballon d’Or, and yet for many Lionel Messi’s legacy still hinged entirely on one afternoon of football.
In a tournament where atmospheres have been patchy to say the least, Messi’s presence in what is his last World Cup was enough to provide a cutting, partisan setting inside the Lusail Stadium. It says it all.
Before a whistle had even sounded for kick-off, this was very clearly the Messi show. The pressure was on. It’s nothing he isn’t used to, though. And crucially, the occasion wasn’t one that could ever scar his legacy as the greatest footballer of all time.
Ever-changing storylines and sub-plots are what make a World Cup great, thus it’s fitting that the tournament came to a close in the same fashion. Messi, for how immortal he has looked for so long, entered this tournament aged 35, his powers on a football pitch naturally waning. The clock was ticking and that’s okay.
” Lifting the World Cup is merely the cherry on top of a career that will likely never be repeated again.”
However, Argentina entered the World Cup as Copa America winners and off the back of a 36-game unbeaten streak. The hype was all too real. In the Autumn of his career, this could finally be the moment Messi lifts football’s most illustrious prize. And with long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo gunning for the same objective but seemingly lighting everything around him on fire, the path looked clear for La Albiceleste.
That was until they were beaten by Saudi Arabia in matchday one. Argentina looked completely shell-shocked and Messi looked worringly mortal. The narrative that everyone had been dreaming about was frantically being ripped up and rewritten in a fashion that resembled WWE under the final hours of Vince McMahon’s watch.
But what fun is a story without stumbles?
That matchday one defeat would only go on to make Argentina’s run to the final, and Messi’s performances along the way, all the more glorious. The ‘one last dance’ cliché has been used to no end throughout the 2022 World Cup, but it’s fitting in the way that the Paris Saint-Germain forward has picked his moments to roll back the years, slaloming around defenders and creating goals in the blink of an eye.
A goal and an assist against Netherlands in the quarter-final and the same feat again in the semis against Croatia. Top that off with a yet another vintage Messi performance in the final against France and you’re looking at an unforgettable tournament campaign from the menacing man from Rosario, who was key to destroying Les Bleus in an exceptional Argentina display – before it all came crashing down thanks to the heir to the throne and PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe.
It’s fitting that Mbappe did force a remarkable French comeback at the death, because despite all of the drama, nothing changes. Nothing. Win or lose, Messi is – for now – the greatest footballer of all time and one singular trophy cannot dictate that fact.
Instead, lifting the World Cup is merely the cherry on top of a career that will likely never be repeated again.
To hinge the legacy of a man who has continually raised the bar to unfathomable heights in football over the last two decades on the prospect of winning one trophy is quite simply absurd.
Messi, since 2004, has turned the game on its head with his superhuman feats for club and country. To suggest his career lives or dies by whether or not he can lift the World Cup, a tournament ultimately decided by one fixture in the end, is a disrespect of the highest order.
He’ll now leave the game with more World Cup appearances than anybody else, the most goals at the tournament for Argentina and the same amount of goals as Pele (and Mbappe) while also leaving as the only player to assist at five separate tournaments. Add that onto his feats at club level, it’s immensely difficult to suggest that he isn’t the greatest ever, trophy lifted or not.
However, while it once looked certain that we’ll never see someone of his calibre again, Mbappe stepped up on the world stage and did the unthinkable. His hat-trick in response to Messi’s superhuman exploits left the world lost for words. The Argentine doesn’t look mortal; the Frenchman has simply elevated to an immortal level. At just 23.
That incredible trio of goals has terrifyingly confirmed that he will do everything in his power to somehow eclipse Messi, when that has looked impossible for the longest time.
But greatness prevails, and in a tournament of stories, Messi had to write the final chapter. He had to ice the cake – a cake that had already been made, celebrating the Argentine as the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.
Embrace the suffering. Let it all be part of Messi’s perfectly imperfect journey to the top. GOAT status was and still is Messi’s, no matter how hard his apprentice tries to challenge that in the coming years.