Winning the World Cup meant a whole life to Messi — his pulse, his purpose, his true love

For Lionel Messi, this would be the sweetest night of all, yet it could have been his cruellest night.

For much of the match, it seemed he would keep his date with destiny, rather destiny would keep its date with Messi. He saw it dwelling above his head when he looked up to take the penalty. He saw it winking at him when he threaded in the pass to Julian Alvarez that resulted in the second goal. He saw it over his shoulders when Argentina bit and barked their way to the back-end of the game.

Then he saw it slip away, cruelly, without the time to register what he was watching.

He saw it when Kingsley Coman snatched the ball and his dream from beneath his left foot. He saw it wither away when Hugo Lloris finger-tipped his devilishly late-swinging shot into the stands in the penultimate minute of the game.

Then he saw the dream smiling back at him again: a rebound fell onto his path at the 109th minute.

In the tap-in, he saw his dream revived, only to be cruelly nipped off by Mbappe, courtesy a penalty in the 118th minute. In the careless wave of Gonzalo Montiel’s left hand, he saw the dream wriggle away. In the stretched studs of Emiliano Martinez to thwart Kolo Muani’s goal-bound shot, he saw the dream revive again.

Finally, in the ball that sped to the bottom left corner of the goal from the boot of Montiel, he finally fulfilled his dream, his destiny. It was about him. It was about his true love. How longingly he looked at the trophy, and planted a long, lingering kiss on its crown.

It was a deeply personal moment.

He smiled like a child, wandered aimlessly in a state of dreaminess, hugging anyone he saw in his path, kneeling down, looking blankly into the turf, in a state of numbness. As if seized with a sudden void in his life. There is nothing more for him to achieve, nothing more to dream of, nothing more to fight for, nothing more to look forward to. That’s how much the trophy meant to him.

It meant a whole life — its purpose, its pulse, its true love.

Messi won the World Cup because it was his true love. He tried, he waited, he cried, he fought, and finally it was his. For Messi, this might have not been about matching Diego Maradona or surpassing him, or ending the greatest-of-his-time debate with Cristiano Ronaldo.

There are the conjectures of those around him. For Messi, winning the World Cup was never an ego thing, or about vindication or exoneration. For him, it could have been about winning the only trophy that has eluded him, winning the only trophy that he has come close to winning, yet not winning it. Not because he could flaunt or boast to parade, but because he longed, he craved and he loved.

For him, it would be the realisation of a childhood dream. When he first picked a football in his neighbourhood, his first dream would not have been winning the treble for Barcelona or stacking up world footballer of the year plaques. But to win the World Cup for his country, just as the first shirt he might have ever worn would be that of his country, not that of Barcelona.

For him, it would be about the joy he spreads on the faces of his countrymen. There were thousands at the Lusail Iconic Stadium. From the moment the closing ceremony, garish and loud unlike the opening piece, made way for the pregame warm-up, the eyes roved and hovered over Messi.

He began his prep gingerly, with a sheepish smile, like someone had interrupted his Sunday siesta. He would meander along, would begin to jog, and then, as though suddenly remembering the sense of the occasion, would wave at the crowd, not passionately, but almost reluctantly, as though all this adulation and fanfare were disorienting.

It seemed like the entire stadium was communicating with just Messi, oblivious of the others, with their eyes and their sound, with their minds in a deep telepathic communication. They breathlessly waited for the kick-off, belting out Messi’s name even when the firecrackers swirled into the skies.

He offers them an escape from their grim life realities, hope and optimism. Even without a World Cup triumph, the genius of Messi would have remained unburned. Rather the tragedy of his career would have endured and endeared, just like love unrequited.

The longer the wait, the sweeter the moment. No other footballer would have waited so long.

It’s his fifth World Cup, two of his teammates in his debut tournament are in the coaching staff, his country had five different heads, the two most influential footballers of his life, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff died, he married his childhood sweetheart, became father thrice and left his second home Barcelona.

No other footballer would have shed as many emotions as him either, from hope and faith, to devastation and repentance. In this game alone he would have run the whole range. He has displayed the sort of labour that only the most persistent and passionate can summon. Perhaps, his fuel behind winning the World Cup was unconditional, unalloyed, selfless love.

There were times when he had given up, when he thought the World Cup would not love him back. But maybe it was his heart whispering that one day, one far day, the Cup would return the love, in full measure. Messi won because the World Cup was his true love. He tried, he cried, he fought, and finally it was his.

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The true love of his life.

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