Up until about 3:30 ET on Tuesday, Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol was having one of the best Decembers on planet Earth.
He’d gone into the World Cup as a relative unknown. But based on his performances in Qatar, Gvardiol, only 20, has become the most coveted young defender in the world. Recent reports suggest his transfer value is cresting €100-million. The two Manchesters – City and United – are lining up to make him fantastically rich and famous.
It was fairy-tale stuff. Until Lionel Messi decided to have his way with him.
Near the end of Croatia’s semi-final with Argentina, Messi lured Gvardiol to the Croatian goal line. Gvardiol is 6-feet tall and broad as a bouncer. Messi is about the size of an 8th-grader. But once Messi got the Croatian on his hip, he turned him inside-out like he was folding a T-shirt.
It was one of those moves that don’t make sense, even after you’ve watched it a half-dozen times. You try putting your finger up to the screen – ‘Okay, he’s here. Then he’s here. Then he’s over there …’ – and it still doesn’t compute.
The rest of the Croatian team was having the same problem. They stood there, slack-jawed, watching Messi do it. That led to an easy Argentine goal.
This was the purest expression of Messi’s brilliance. He isn’t just amazing all of us. He’s amazing people who know they can’t afford to stand around being amazed by him. And yet.
Argentina romped. On Wednesday, France won as well (though less convincingly in a 2-0 victory over Morocco). So it’s Argentina versus France on Sunday for all the marbles. After all that talk about the World Cup you couldn’t predict, we’re getting the final everyone saw coming.
Now that it’s almost over, we know what this World Cup will be remembered for.
It isn’t human rights, or protest, or corruption. It isn’t France’s attempt at a back-to-back. It isn’t Morocco upending the accepted order of things.
It’s Messi, and whether he will get what the whole world wants for him. Child prodigy to teenage sensation to mature genius to most famous person alive to right now. Now that we have some perspective, it’s so blindingly obvious that it was all meant to lead to this.
For nearly 20 years, Messi’s greatest trick has been hiding in something much more spotlit than plain sight.
He’s everywhere in Qatar. On billboards and tifosi and emblazoned across the back of every second fan. The local World Cup broadcasts feature about five recurring ads, and he’s in all of them.
But what do we know about Messi? What are his thoughts? Where does he stand on anything?
Nobody has any clue. Messi is a blank slate. For the purposes of public consumption, he’s not a person. He’s a collection of remarkable abilities plus a lovely, crooked smile.
Messi’s actually given more of himself here than he ever has before. People have pored over footage from the fractious quarter-final with the Dutch. At one point, Messi berates Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal.
Van Gaal is a cheeky ol’ sausage, famous for his love of a verbal joust. But as Messi scolds him – “You talk too much!” – Van Gaal appears bewildered. It’s the look of a man realizing he is out of his depth. He has angered the soccer gods.
Elsewhere, a couple of Dutch players try placating him by putting their arms around his shoulder. Messi roughly shoves them away. Dutch disappointment is palpable. They realize they have to lose for the good of the story, but they were hoping to stay friends.
In the semiotics of Messi-ness, this World Cup is his turn toward darkness. Argentine teams are renowned for dirty tricks, but Messi was always above that. Not any more. He’s no longer afraid to sell a foul, or chase a ref, or yell at an opposing coach. His desire has overcome his composure.
The effect isn’t to make people like him less. They like this Messi – a human Messi – even more.
It helps that he has been at his most influential over the past three matches. When things are going his way, Messi operates in a different gravity than everyone around him.
It wasn’t enough that he win a World Cup. Like Diego Maradona in 1986, he had to dominate a World Cup.
Four weeks ago, that didn’t seem possible. It’s been years since Messi was Messi. Being Messi isn’t a function of statistics, trophies or highlight plays.
It’s a way that others in the game speak about you. It’s something more than respect. It’s awe.
That tone is back. One of the English post-game shows features Rio Ferdinand. Ferdinand used to be the best defender in the world. He was asked how he would suggest stopping Messi.
“Other than GBH [grievous bodily harm], I don’t know,” Ferdinand said.
Great line. But it wasn’t so much the words as the tone – wonder and delight. People want Messi to be the greatest, because having played him or seen him puts them in the company of greatness.
No one was in the room when Darwin figured out natural selection, but 60,000 can be there when Messi pretzels Gvardiol. A billion more can watch it happen on TV. That’s the magic of sport. It puts the sublime within reach of the masses.
Messi must understand what’s at stake now. If Argentina wins on Sunday, he’s the greatest in history.
It’d be great if he controls the match, but he doesn’t even need to do that. He’s already done enough to convince people that it was him all along. But Argentina must win. Otherwise, this was all for nothing.
Understanding that, Messi decided to close off every escape route. Sunday will be his last appearance at a World Cup.
“To finish it this way is the best,” Messi told an Argentine newspaper.
I don’t know about best, but it’s certainly the most dramatic.
Before this World Cup, you could already argue Messi was the defining athlete of our time.
Now, for his finale, he will define himself on the world’s largest stage. No net will be used in this high-wire act. If Messi falls, that’s it. But if he doesn’t …