Lionel Messi’s magic in his last World Cup for Argentina is a reminder to enjoy his greatness while you still can

By | November 26, 2022

He turned 35 years old back in June, when the 2022 FIFA World Cup ought to have been played, and every day since has brought him one day closer to the close of the greatest career this sport might see, ever.

Lionel Messi is not old for a soccer player. He is damn near ancient. He also still is Lionel Messi, which might render those years inconsequential.

You can mock him, if you wish, for playing with Paris-Saint Germain in France’s Ligue 1, the least of the big five European leagues. He has scored seven goals and assisted 10 times in 13 games, but do as you must. PSG was stuck in a challenging Champions League group with Benfica and Juventus, though, and he responded with four goals and four assists in five games.

His Argentina squad entered its game Saturday at the 2022 FIFA World Cup aware a defeat would mean a disastrous elimination just two games into group play, and a little more than an hour into the game he delivered a 25-yard laser that beat goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, disintegrated Mexico’s game plan, and helped produce a 2-0 victory that gives the Argentines control of their own future in the third game, against Group C leader Poland.

If you still are sneering, or booing, you might be hopeless.

A week into the World Cup, this has not been the dream departure envisioned by Messi and so many who’ve cheered or chronicled his career. Messi will take the field Wednesday driven to beat Poland and win Group C, and eventually to lead his squad toward the moment when he lifts the trophy. But he no longer is defined by it.

The years of longing for the embrace of his home country — elusive because he left at a young age to complete his training at FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy, but more so because for years he was unable to elevate the national team to a major championship — are no more.

He has given them what he always dreamed: a major championship, at last summer’s Copa America. Some of them still behave as if he owes them more; at the Mexico game, many jeered him when he attempted a free kick from 28 yards out in the second half — the sort of shot he has placed into the goal so many times in the past — but lofted it over the crossbar.

This World Cup represents a sort of last stand for Messi with Argentina, and for that to end after just three games would be a massive disappointment. No longer, though, would it represent a sporting tragedy. He has won a major tournament for his country. He’d like another, but the World Cup for Messi could be like the PGA Championship was for Arnold Palmer: the only thing he did not win.

Messi still is swinging, though, so there still is a chance.

“We needed this result. We needed this euphoria,” Messi told Fox Sports. “Today, we had to win.”

It is unlikely we will see Messi in the Albiceleste when the tournament is staged across the United States, Canada, and Mexico in 2026. He will be 39 then. The few World Cup players who hit that age are mostly goalkeepers, and even for them it’s a stretch.

The 2020 Copa America originally was to be staged in Argentina, but it was delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic and eventually moved to Brazil because it was better positioned to proceed with a 28-game, five-venue competition.

“God brought it here for us to lift it at the Maracana, boys, for it to be more beautiful for all of us,” Messi told his teammates in a pregame huddle. And then they won it, 1-0, on a first-half goal by veteran winger Angel Di Maria. When the 90 minutes expired, Messi fell to his knees in joy. It was impossible not to see what it meant. It was the last obstacle. There is no more “never”. There is only “still”.

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“For me, being by Leo’s side is everything. He’s the best in the world, an alien, and I won’t get tired of saying it,” Di Maria told La Nacion, Argentina’s leading paper. “And I’ll say it again: Playing with Leo is the best thing that has happened to me in my career.”

In an age of athletics consumed with arithmetic, we can quantify Messi’s greatness: the 474 league goals he scored with FC Barcelona, the 129 registered against UEFA Champions League competition, the 92 collected as a member of the Argentina national team.

We can consider the trophies he has claimed as the world player of the year: seven Ballon d’Or awards, the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup, six in a row as Best Player in La Liga.

We can consider the trophies his teams have won: four in Champions League, seven in Spain’s Copa del Rey, 10 as champion of Spain’s La Liga. Oh, and we should not forget the elusive 2021 Copa America title Argentina claimed last summer, after finishing three times as runner-up in South America’s continental championship and once in the World Cup, in 2014.

It was that title that assured Messi would not enter this World Cup carrying the burden of never having won anything, ever, with Argentina. Don’t think that did not weigh on him.

I was in the tunnel beneath Giants Stadium in 2016, after he’d blown his attempt over the bar in the decisive penalty shootout of the Copa America Centenario against Chile. He was bereft. He quit the national team that night, telling Argentine TV, “In the locker room, I thought: The national team is not for me.”

It was translated as a retirement, because that was the respectful way to frame it, and all of us who wrote that night figured there might be more. But given he has played more than 50 times since with Argentina, including in two World Cups and two Copa Americas, it best was characterized as a surrender.

The Messi who is in Qatar is chasing the single prize that has eluded him — and only by a single goal in the 2014 final against Germany — rather than the gentleman broken by the frustration of always finishing second with Argentina.

Mexico intended to play Messi physically. Occasionally, he used that to his advantage, tricking the referee into awarding that dangerous free kick he misspent, or grabbing a few extra minutes of rest by feigning injury after a hard foul. He persisted, likely aware there would come a moment when Mexico would slip and he would find the moment he needed to claim the game. It happened in the 64th minute, and his strike changed what was possible for Argentina in this World Cup.

When he was interviewed after the game, Messi acknowledged the start of the World Cup was a challenge for the younger members of the Argentina team, that some appeared to feel the pressure to perform on sports’ greatest stage. He removed all of that with his glorious goal, and that renewed freedom and energy led to a second for the Argentines, this one from young Enzo Fernandez, who had not scored previously for his country.

Because Argentina has Messi, it seems reasonable to expect the great challenges ahead in this tournament might be manageable. Enjoy whatever time you can share with him. Nothing lasts forever. Not even Messi. Although we’ve no proof of this, yet.