His arms aloft, Lionel Messi stood before those who had come to adore him. In that second, he had the massed ranks of Argentina’s fans inside the Lusail Stadium under his spell. They did not bounce and writhe in celebration. Instead, he held them perfectly still, caught in a moment of quiet communion between the divine and his congregation.
Then, of course, it broke. The stands above seemed to melt and to shake, a roar of joy and relief and affirmation reverberating around this vast, golden bowl. On the field, Messi was flooded by his jubilant teammates. He had not scored the goal – that relatively simple task had fallen to Julian Alvarez – but he had created it, willed it into being, fashioned it from whole silk. And now, at last, he had done what he had set out to do.
For years, Argentina has hoped. For weeks, Argentina has believed. Only in that moment, though, with a 3-0 lead over Croatia with just 10 minutes of the semi-final left, did Argentina know. On Sunday, Messi will lead out his country in the World Cup final. Eight years on, the player who might be the best of all time will again grace the biggest game in the world. He will have one last shot at redemption. He will have his chance at revenge.
It has become a familiar trope that this World Cup – his last – is Messi’s final opportunity to make up for the disappointment of defeat by Germany in 2014; to cement his legacy; to match the achievements of his only possible historical peers, Pele and Diego Maradona, and deliver his nation the greatest glory the game can offer. That framing is appealing, but it is wrong.
Messi’s legacy is already secure. His list of honours borders on the absurd, an endless parade of trophies lifted and records smashed: four Champions League titles, 790 goals, 11 domestic championships, a Copa America, Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer, five Ballons d’Or (or equivalent), the most prolific player in Spanish history.
Messi is not here because he needs a World Cup to be remembered as a great. He is here because it is the one thing that would mean more – to him, to his congregation, to his homeland – than any other. He is here because he sees it as somewhere between his duty and his destiny. He is here because it would be his crowning glory.
There has been an intensity to Messi these past few weeks that has not always been apparent in the latter stages of his career. He still spends much of his time on the field strolling around, of course, rousing himself into a gentle jog only when he deems the situation worthy of his attention, but that economy of energy should not be confused with disinterest or dissatisfaction.
It was Messi, after all, who stood up on Argentina’s team bus after defeat to Saudi Arabia and asked his dejected teammates if they could trust one another. It was Messi who confronted the entire Netherlands coaching staff after Argentina had emerged victorious from an irascible, volatile quarter-final. It was Messi who took fiery exception to the presence of Wout Weghorst, the Dutch striker, in a postmatch interview.
And it has, time and again, been Messi who has intervened in games to bend them to his will. Since that loss to the Saudis, he said, Argentina has “faced five finals and been fortunate to win all five.”
Fortunate is one word for it. In the group stage, it was Messi who broke the deadlock against Mexico, just as Argentina’s nerves were shredding, as the spectre of humiliation hung heavy over the nation. It was Messi who opened the scoring against Australia in the round of 16. It was Messi who made the first goal and scored the second against the Dutch, and then it was Messi who stepped up and took the first penalty in the shootout.
Against Croatia, it was Messi who proved the decisive figure. The cruelty of knockout soccer is that a whole month’s worth of work – more, in fact – can evaporate in a single instant. Croatia’s defining trait, throughout the tournament, has been its control, its composure.
It may not have been the most adventurous, thrill-seeking team in Qatar, but it has been disciplined, organized, resolute. It has worn down opponents, held them at bay, trusted that they would make the first mistake. It had done it well enough not only to make it to the semi-final, beating Brazil along the way, but also to survive the first half-hour of Tuesday’s game with barely a scratch.
Luka Modric, that other generational talent trying to stave off the final curtain, had established his authority over the midfield. His redoubtable cadre of lieutenants – Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic – were hurriedly and dutifully putting out what few fires threatened to ignite. Argentina was starting to get that same sinking feeling that plenty of teams face when confronted by Croatia.
But all it takes is a moment. For the first time – in this game, in this tournament, possibly in his life – Modric took his eye off the ball. Rather than coming under his command, it rolled under his feet, squirming out to Enzo Fernandez. No matter; Fernandez was still deep in his own half. There was no immediately apparent danger.
Modric is so reliable, though, that it had not occurred to anyone that he might err. Josko Gvardiol and Dejan Lovren, Croatia’s central defenders, had drifted apart, attempting to offer him a favourable angle for a pass.
Suddenly, there was a gap. Alvarez, alert, spotted it. So, too, did Fernandez. He clipped a straight, simple ball down the field, and suddenly Alvarez was racing after it, gobbling up the clear, green grass in front of him. Dominik Livakovic, the Croatia goalkeeper, rushed out to meet him but succeeded only in clattering into his midriff. Argentina had a penalty. Messi had the ball. All of Croatia’s good work had been for nothing.
Five minutes later, the game was effectively over, Alvarez scoring the worst, best goal imaginable, barging down the field from the halfway line, the ball ricocheting back into his path after two attempted Croatian challenges, sitting up perfectly to be prodded past Livakovic.
This being Argentina, though, even a two-goal lead did not provide absolute certainty. Lionel Scaloni’s team had one of those against the Dutch and had thrown it away. It was only when the third goal emerged, conjured into being by Messi, that Argentina could exhale. It was fitting, too – a vintage slice of Messicana, a maestro playing the hits, using this stage to become his own tribute act.
With 10 minutes to play of a World Cup semi-final, at the age of 35, there he was, scurrying down the wing, wriggling away from Gvardiol, his unstinting shadow all night, slowing down so he could beat him again, making it into the penalty area, slipping the ball back for Alvarez, turning to his fans, to his people, and accepting not so much their congratulations as their thanks.
That was when Argentina knew. In those last few minutes, as Argentina ticked down the clock and the songs echoed around the Lusail, Argentina’s substitutes stood on the sideline, that purgatorial zone between the stands and the field, with their arms slung around one another’s shoulders, joining in with the chorus.
At the tops of their voices, they sang the anthems that have soundtracked Argentina’s month in Qatar, its journey to the final, the ones that are dedicated to the country, to Maradona and, above all, to Messi, the man they have all come – fans and players alike – to honour and adore.