What World Cup 2022 win does for Lionel Messi’s legend

LUSAIL, Qatar — Kylian Mbappe had converted France’s first penalty in a shoot-out, the fourth time he has beaten Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez in the World Cup final after previously scoring a hat-trick. And that’s how Lionel Messi stepped up to take Argentina’s first penalty.

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Conventional wisdom dictates that you generally want your best penalty takers to start last, or at least when you’re about to be eliminated. But there was nothing conventional or clever about that final, or, if I think about it, about that World Cup.

Messi stood there briefly, hands on hips, took a run-up, sent France keeper Hugo Lloris one way and the ball the other. It was 1-1 and it was out of his hands now. And maybe there was something enormously liberating about that. There was nothing more he could do to help Argentina win that World Cup and, in the eyes of some, cement their GOAT candidacy with the greatest prize in team sport. Nothing but cheerleaders and a supporting captain, which he did, greeting every Argentinian penalty taker with a hug and a high-five.

Argentina became champions minutes later when Gonzalo Montiel converted his penalty to make it 4-2 and put them in an unassailable lead. But at that very moment, after Messi’s penalty, he must have realized: “I can’t take it anymore.” In a way, it speaks to what haunted his record-breaking career until one Sunday night in Qatar (a day we have to explain to our grandchildren): his failure to win a World Cup.

In a team game, it’s an arbitrary measurement, and in this sport it’s particularly silly. If you’re lucky, you only get four or five cracks; one is often too young for the first option and too old for the last. There’s no guarantee you’ll be fit when the moment is over and unlike club football you can’t control your supporting cast because you can’t choose your nationality. Alfredo Di Stefano never won a World Cup. Neither does Johan Cruyff. Neither does Cristiano Ronaldo.

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This does not determine his status within the GOAT group or even as a GOAT. But it finally banishes an undeserved cloud that has hung over it for many years.

Messi’s debut for Argentina lasted a full two minutes and for some it seemed an omen. It was the summer of 2005, he was an 18-year-old prodigy at Barcelona, ​​coming on as a substitute after 63 minutes and receiving his marching orders 120 seconds later over an alleged elbow.

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Even as his career took off – even as club plaques and Ballon d’Ors piled up, even as he shattered the Argentina national team’s records for goals scored (which he did in 2016) and appearances (in the summer of 2021) – and many himself held him as the No. 1 of the game (and the rest, the Ronaldo fans, thought he was No. 1A), that doubt lingered. When would he deliver with Argentina?

Indeed, there were some at home who wondered how badly he wanted his country. After all, he had left the country at the age of 13 and moved to Barcelona. Then, in 2016, just after the Copa America Centenario, he announced his retirement from the national team, citing differences with the federation. The reaction was almost unanimous, and a nationwide campaign for his return only underscored the absurdity of questioning his loyalty. He was back in time to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

And yet, up to that point, the Messi-era scoreboard has been one big goose egg for Argentina: four Copas Americas and three World Cups, four runners-up medals and plenty of regrets and moments that could have been.

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Ale Moreno says the World Cup final was delivered at all levels as Argentina lifted the trophy in dramatic fashion.

Messi watchers set the turning point at the 2019 Copa America. Argentina lost to Brazil in the semifinals and after the game, Messi was decidedly un-Messi-like. He railed against the referee, showing an obvious, outside edge that few had seen before. He had taken the captaincy a few years earlier, but that was a different Messi: that was angry Messi, snarling Messi, street Messi. (That was the Messi who appeared after the game against the Dutch and hissed at Wout Weghorst: “What are you looking at, Bobo?”)

At the same time, his relationship with Barcelona, ​​where he had served for almost two decades, became strained following the signing of Antoine Griezmann. For many, it felt like he was poised to double Argentina like never before. A year later, in 2020, he filed the now infamous “office fax” to force a move. His wish came true in 2021 when he joined Paris Saint-Germain as a free agent and in the same year he finally broke the Argentine silver curse and led his country to the 2021 Copa America.

In a way, everything that followed that summer was a prelude to that night in Doha. Argentina was coached by Lionel Scaloni, a former teammate who is above all a manager who kept the kind of psychodrama and media circuses – staples of previous regimes, such as that of Jorge Sampaoli in 2018 and Diego Maradona in 2010 – away from its players . Long unbeaten under Scaloni, Argentina developed a system that banned their dependence on Messi. It was an added value and often a crucial element, but not the whole game plan. Meanwhile, playing at PSG alongside the likes of Mbappe and Neymar diluted the limelight, while the French league offered a bit of a respite from the weekly La Liga routine.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see that everything pointed in one direction: that Messi should finally win the all-time great. But even that means forgetting what he did to bring Argentina here and get them over the line.

Messi broke the ice against Mexico and sent Argentina on course to a crucial win after losing their opening game to Saudi Arabia. He scored in each of the knockout rounds up to the final, converting a penalty to make it 1-0 against France, opening the counterattack to make it 2-0 and there to scoop the winner in extra time, if not for Montiel’s forearm, which led to Mbappe’s equalizer on penalties.

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The triumph over Mbappe on the day the Frenchman scored a hat-trick in the final has inescapable symbolic value. It was the impending past against the inevitable future for control of the present. And for now, the present still belongs to Messi.

Let’s get one thing straight: Messi didn’t need that golden trophy to secure his place at the GOAT table. He wanted it to give back to his teammates and his nation after 22 years abroad (and counting). Not because he owes them, but because he loves them. Still, for some, winning his first World Cup will shift the needle and propel Messi to the top of that GOAT table and that’s fine. Each of us has our own criteria.

To me, winning by numbers isn’t an argument—not by comparing apples and aardvarks.

Messi has won four Champions League titles? Great: Pele couldn’t play in the Champions League (or European Cup as it was then known) because the Brazilian government passed laws preventing him from moving abroad. And Diego Maradona was playing at a time when you had to win the league to be in it, not just finish in the top four.

For most of his career, Pele did not have the benefit of a supporting cast made up of the world’s best players, regardless of their origins. Neither did Maradona, who was playing at a time when clubs were limited to three foreign players. Messi plays in a highly polarized era where the ‘superclubs’ (like Barcelona and PSG) have budgets 10, 20 and sometimes 40 times that of most of their opponents. The other two don’t.

There is also a danger of confusing achievement with greatness, since you can only achieve what comes from your time. Winning a World Cup is an achievement, but it doesn’t automatically confer greatness.

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Dale Johnson summarizes the refereeing decisions in Argentina’s win over France in the World Cup final.

Nor can they take the easy way out of citing today’s athletes as being inherently better because of better playing fields, better sports science, better genes, better training techniques, or whatever. It may be true that if you teleport Sir Bobby Charlton from 1968 to the present, Harry Kane could be way ahead of him? So what? Does that mean Bobby Charlton is a dud? Not in my book.

For some, size is such an abstraction that it transcends pitch. Pele and Maradona, each in their own way, had a charisma, presence and social importance that Messi probably doesn’t have. Not because he is less of a footballer, but simply because he has a different personality and you often can’t separate that. If Muhammad Ali had stayed Cassius Clay, never taken a stand on social issues and limited himself to blunt clichés in interviews, would he still be “the greatest”? (I appreciate that he anointed himself for this, but you get the point.)

Messi ticked a number of boxes on Sunday night by winning the World Cup, although it’s not logic I understand. Me? I’m just happy to see that greatness is rewarded. That’s enough for me. And no, it wasn’t just greatness with the ball at his feet.

Looking back on that tournament, Argentina coach Scaloni often spoke about trust, about putting your fate in the hands of your team-mates and believing in them. That’s what Messi has done in this tournament, and it was most evidently driven home during the long walk back to the center circle after clinching his penalty kick home in a shoot-out.

Messi trusted his teammates. And they didn’t let him down. Just like he didn’t let her down.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/argentina-arg/story/4834110/what-world-cup-2022-win-does-for-lionel-messi-legend What World Cup 2022 win does for Lionel Messi’s legend

Emma Bowman

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