But the journey in Qatar began on the worst note possible for the current Argentina captain and his band of eventually merry men.
He stepped up to the spot against Saudi Arabia in their opening game of Qatar 2022 and in an almost nonchalant way slotted in his first goal of FIFA 2022, becoming the first Argentinian to score in 4 World Cups.
🇦🇷Argentina have now won the FIFA World Cup for a third time,36 years since their last triumph in 1986.🏆Only Ital… https://t.co/mWr9XP97v9
— FIFA World Cup Stats (@alimo_philip) 1671402155000
Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais really didn’t stand a chance against Lionel Messi once Argentina were awarded a penalty in just the 7th minute of play. He dived the wrong way – a quick little clever stop just before kicking the ball and Messi sent the ball in the other direction. Can’t blame the keeper. He was staring at a player who is undoubtedly one of the best ever. Messi celebrated with his teammates – a big smile on his face.
But then the story changed drastically – After the final whistle, Messi wore a forlorn look to say the least. Shoulders slumped, a familiar scowl on his face, the walk back to the tunnel slow and laboured. It was almost as if he could visualise the World Cup trophy slipping away – yet again. Argentina had been handed one of the biggest shock losses in the history of the tournament. Played – 1, Lost – 1.
To be very honest, not too many people at this stage would have envisaged Messi holding aloft the World Cup trophy – a trophy that had eluded him over four previous editions, from 2006 to 2018.
But, that’s the script that was written for him. Messi was destined to win the World Cup in what was his final appearance in the tournament. And he did it in style – becoming the first player ever to score in every round of the World Cup – from group stage to the final. And in the process he finally stepped out of the shadow of his idol and the last World Cup winning captain for Argentina – Diego Armando Maradona.
Like countless other young Argentines, Lionel Messi grew up idolising Maradona. Over the years, it was evident that despite their contrasting personalities, there was mutual respect, even if there was no ‘friendship’. Maradona in fact had once famously said – “He (Messi) doesn’t have the personality to be a leader.”
Maradona was also the Argentina coach for a two year period from 2008 to 2010 and was the manager in the 2010 edition of the World Cup in South Africa, which was Messi’s second appearance at the showpiece event.
As Messi went from strength to strength and began to firmly establish himself as one of the, if not the best in the world and perhaps of all time, the inevitable comparisons with Maradona began.
Over the years, when you thought of Lionel Messi, you would think of two things – one of the best footballers of all time, and also a superstar who was yet to win a World Cup.
With Barcelona FC, Messi has won it all. With Argentina too he has a Copa America title. But the biggest prize of them continued to elude him. And that in itself was a lonely place to be in.
All comparisons between him with his illustrious predecessor and compatriot Diego Armando Maradona ended with the same statement – ‘Maradona won a World Cup, Messi hasn’t’.
Can Messi win the World Cup? There was always a distinct sense of deja vu that one felt when you heard this oft-repeated question. It was a question that had been asked since his first appearance in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
The wait almost ended in 2014 in Brazil, when Messi was within sniffing distance of the trophy. But standing in Argentina’s way in the final hurdle were the Germans – And the Albiceleste faltered, going down 1-0 after extra time. Messi was given the Golden Ball, but it almost felt like a consolation prize. After all, the Golden Ball is no World Cup trophy. The look on Messi’s face after that final was not too different from the one he wore after the loss to Saudi Arabia in Qatar. He held the award for the Player of the Tournament in his hands, but his face wore an extremely sad look. He was not just sad though, he was lonely.
Cut to 2022, and a beaming Messi proudly held the Golden Ball award again – becoming the first player, since the Golden Ball award was instituted in 1982, to win it twice. But the reason he was smiling from ear to ear this time of course had nothing to do with him winning the prize for the best player of the tournament. It was because he had finally done what his idol had done 36 years ago – take his team to the holy grail of world football.
And in doing so, Messi has once and for all stepped out of Maradona’s shadow. He is no longer a lonely figure, trying to join a list which had just two names all these years – Passarella and Maradona. He is well and truly a member of that elite club now.
The way Argentina managed to bounce back after their shock loss against Saudi Arabia that threatened an early exit for the Albiceleste is one of the biggest stories of this edition of the World Cup, which produced multiple upsets and some fascinating football. Messi led from the front, scoring 7 goals in the tournament and assisting 3. He is in fact now the solo record holder for the most number of goal contributions in World Cup matches since 1966, with 21 (13 goals and 8 assists). Don’t think anyone will doubt his World Cup credentials now, especially because he is now also a World Cup winner.
But there was a time when many feared that the weight of expectations would weigh Messi down.
After all, he has been someone who was always expected to take Argentina to the title. But football is a team sport and Messi magic alone was not enough at the World Cup. We have seen that over so many editions now. Which is why the likes of Enzo Fernandez, Julain Alvarez, Angel Di Maria and in particular Emiliano Martinez deserve special mention. It wasn’t really a surprise to see Enzo and Emi Martinez walk away with the Best Young Player and Golden Glove winner awards.
Messi’s own awards and accolades list is also of course a stunning one. A record 7 Ballon d’Or awards and a plethora of accolades with Barcelona FC over the years. But that World Cup winner’s medal was missing. And that stopped people from calling him the ‘greatest of all time’ or even in the same league as Maradona. Not any more.
But there’s no doubt that destiny wrote similar scripts for Maradona and Messi.
Maradona and Messi at the World Cup is a very interesting comparison. Both men were captains of their team. Both almost won the World Cup twice. Almost – being denied by the same country (West Germany for Maradona and Germany for Messi). After winning the 1986 edition in Mexico, Maradona almost took Argentina to the title again in 1990. But they were denied by the West Germans and a single late penalty goal by a certain Andreas Brehme. Messsi’s script was the inverse of that. He almost took Argentina to the title in 2014, only to be denied by Germany again by a single late goal – by Mario Gotze in the 113th minute. Two editions later, Messi finally became a World Cup winner.
In 1986, in the quarter-finals vs England, Maradona scored probably the two goals that have been talked about, dissected and analysed the most – the controversial ‘Hand of God’ goal and then the goal voted the ‘Goal of the century’. In Qatar this time, Messi had a few moments of absolute brilliance as well, like his goal vs Mexico in the group stage and of course his incredible assist in the semi-final vs Croatia.
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It wasn’t surprising to see giant Maradona posters right alongside Messi posters in Buenos Aires as Argentina celebrated their third World Cup title.
Maradona was immortalised thanks largely to Argentina’s title win in 1986. The same happened for Passarella in 1978. But those were very different times. Now, in this age of social media and a non-stop news cycle, Messi’s achievement will in years to come become more than legendary.
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But for the man himself, the one thing that will matter the most perhaps is that the comparisons with Maradona will now stop. He has his own World Cup identity now.
He has well and truly stepped out of Maradona’s shadow.