Lionel Messi stood, his hands on hips, face screwed in concentration, as he took a moment before beginning proceedings for Argentina in the penalty shootout against France in Sunday’s World Cup final. This was the same guy who used to throw up before, sometimes even during, his national team’s matches, supposedly due to anxiety. The same player that Argentine fans once turned their back on. The man of whom Diego Maradona said in 2018, “We shouldn't deify Messi any longer. He's a great player but he's not a leader. It's useless trying to make a leader out of a man who goes to the toilet 20 times before a game.”
On Sunday, facing French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Messi was a picture of calm, masterfully hiding the deep churning sea of emotions underneath. He swung his left foot, coolly slotted the ball past Lloris, who had gone the other way, momentarily draining the drama and chaos of the past 40 minutes. It steadied Argentina’s nerves and set the tone for their flawless performance in the shootout. While Emiliano Martinez saved the penalty from Kingsley Coman, and psyched out Aurélien Tchouameni, Paulo Dybala, Leandro Paredes and Gonzalo Montiel all scored from the spot.
Messi’s Argentina, Argentina’s Messi, after years of wait and yearning, had won the World Cup. Playing his fifth World Cup, the 35-year-old had finally realised his childhood dream and led Argentina to the world championship title for the first time in 36 years. “It’s amazing that it could end this way,” said Messi. “I said previously that God was going to grant me this and I don’t know why but I felt it was going to be this time.”
Ever since Argentina brushed off their shocking 1-2 defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening match in Qatar and snuck into the knockouts, Messi has overwhelmingly looked destined for World Cup glory. But it was not long ago that the little genius seemed resigned to fate.
Not meant to be
His fraught Argentina career seemed to be over in 2016 after the team lost to Chile in the Copa America final. It was Argentina’s third defeat in three years at major tournaments, following the 2014 World Cup final defeat to Germany and then the 2015 Copa America final to Chile. To make matters worse, Messi, who was Argentina’s first kicker in the penalty shootout at the 2016 Copa America final, sent the ball soaring over the crossbar.
“For me, the national team is over,” stated Messi after losing the Copa America final. “I was thinking in the locker room that this is it. I am no longer going to play for the national team… this is my fourth final, it is not for me. Unfortunately, I have come this far (to the final). It is what I wanted more than anything, but it wasn't meant to be.”
For more than a decade, Messi had tried to win over the Argentine fans, who doubted his love and commitment to the national team. This stemmed from the fact that Messi had left Argentina for Spain and Barcelona at the age of 13, partly to hone his football talent and partly because the club was ready to finance his expensive growth hormone treatment. Educated in one of the finest football schools in the world, Barcelona’s La Masia, Messi seemed to have all the flair and finesse of an Argentina player but none of the flying rage of their beloved No. 10, Diego Maradona. He was perceived as an outsider in his homeland.
While Messi seemed to frolic with the ball at his feet in a Barcelona jersey, he looked weighed down by expectation while playing for La Albiceleste (white and sky blue). The anguish only grew as Messi was unable to deliver a major trophy. Eight years ago, Messi had guided the team to the 2014 World Cup final. He had a chance to put his team ahead in the second half, but, with only goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to beat, he struck the ball six inches wide of the post. “Argentina is my country, my family, my way of expressing myself,” said Messi, who won the Golden Ball (player of the tournament) award in 2014. “I would change all my records to make the people in my country happy.”
Turning a corner
It was Messi’s snap decision to quit from the national team in 2016 that brought the fans around. Chants of, “Don’t go, Messi” rung around Argentina. That went some way in healing the relationship and bringing Messi back into the national fold two months later.
There was, however, no quick redemption. The 2018 World Cup came and went. Argentina drew against Iceland, lost to Croatia, made it to the Round of 16 but lost to France 4-3. After the underwhelming performance, Lionel Scaloni, once Messi’s international teammate, was appointed as the interim manager.
Over the past four years, Scaloni has re-built the team brick by brick, trying to figure out ways of playing that would allow Messi to thrive. The breakthrough came last July as they beat arch-rivals Brazil in the final to win the 2021 Copa America, their first major trophy since 1993. A weight was lifted; Messi said it brought him “calm.”
The team arrived at the Qatar World Cup on a 36-match unbeaten streak. There are many in the current Argentina squad that have grown up idolising Messi, dreaming of sharing the field with him. An introverted Messi, once labelled the ‘mute one’ at Barcelona because he would rarely speak, now commandeers a legion that wants to win for him as much as they want to win for Argentina. “If we won a World Cup, I would be more happy for Messi, than for myself,” Paredes said before the tournament. Messi earned the loyalty of players like Angel Di Maria and Emiliano Martinez, who played a stellar role in Argentina’s World Cup campaign, but seemed happy to live in his shadow.
Cup of joy
Following that shock defeat against Saudi Arabia, Messi reignited Argentina’s World Cup hopes with a touch of genius against Mexico. With the score tied at 0-0 after 63 minutes, Messi latched onto a pass from the right, outside the box, and with his second touch whipped the ball into the back of the net. Midfielder Rodrigo De Paul believed Argentina had not panicked, “knowing that we have Leo…when he has to appear, he appears.”
He appeared again in that game to assist Enzo Fernandez; slithered into action to create a goal against Australia; shook off Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol to push the ball for Julian Alvarez to score; threaded a pass to Alexis Mac Allister, who fed Di Maria for Argentina’s second goal against France. In all, he scored seven goals, made three assists and created 17 chances (most at this World Cup) in the seven games in Qatar. Messi, being Messi, conjured these remarkable moments.
But during the World Cup, Messi, also slipped out of character against the feisty Dutch. Taking a leaf out of Juan Román Riquelme’s book, he cupped his ears in celebration. He argued with the referee, confronted Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal, who had irked Argentina and Messi with his pre-game talk, and then rebuked Wout Weghorst on camera. “What are you looking at, dummy? Go back there, dummy. Get away from here,” he told Weghorst. Uninhibited and unshackled, the Messi of the World Cup was certainly not ‘the mute one’.
On Sunday, once again, one last time at the Lusail Stadium, Argentines invoked the spirit of Maradona to raise Messi. “I was born in Argentina, land of Diego and Lionel,” went Argentina’s unofficial World Cup anthem. “I want to win the third, I want to be world champion, And Diego, in heaven we can see him, With Don Diego and La Tota, Rooting for Lionel!”
That fervent dream seemed well on track when Argentina led 2-0 after almost 80 minutes of play. Then Kylian Mbappé, France’s World Cup hero four years ago, decided to make a match out of it. He scored twice in the space of 97 seconds, first a penalty, second a searing volley. Even when Messi, with a goal that just crossed the line, helped Argentina nose ahead in extra time, Mbappé equalised with a 118th minute penalty. The Frenchman, only 23, made Argentina work to essentially win the match thrice, and on this night, Messi’s night, his team was up to the task.
As Montiel drilled home the winning penalty, Messi dropped to his knees and was engulfed by jubilant teammates. A match for the ages had delivered the perfect finish. The greatest footballer of our time had won the greatest prize in the sport; the fairytale was complete. Football was complete.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.