The boy, about 12, sobs uncontrollably. He briefly hugs his father, who is dressed in an Argentinian jersey and is barely able to hold back his own tears of joy.
It’s 26 June and Lionel Messi has just scored Argentina’s first goal against Nigeria in the 14th minute of a Group D match of the 2018 World Cup at Saint Petersburg, Russia. The crowd goes berserk; over 60,000 of them, predominantly Argentinian fans, many of them unsure whether this is Messi’s last World Cup. For, he is 31.
In that deafening cauldron, as the father tries to reassure the child, the moment overwhelms them, the belief that this will be, finally, Messi’s World Cup. Nigeria equalise later but Marcos Rojo makes sure Argentina get the match 2-1 with an 86th-minute winner.
Earlier, minutes before the match, the crowd had erupted, seemingly prematurely, but it wasn’t due to Messi’s entrance to the ground. Up in the stands, a portly, bearded man, who last helped Argentina to a title in 1986, was waving to his thousands of fans. Who knew it would be Diego Maradona’s last World Cup appearance; Argentina’s greatest footballer died in November 2020.
The comparison is inevitable, an earlier generation swearing by Maradona’s unquestionable position as the country’s greatest ever versus this generation’s conviction that Messi, with his record seven Ballon d’Or awards, multiple titles with Barcelona, is deserving of being considered the best Argentinian football player. The 2018 edition would not to be Messi’s, for eventual champions France knocked out Argentina in the round of 16.
In Qatar, Messi has a chance to further emphasise his claim to greatness in what, by his own admission, is his last shot at the World Cup, the biggest title in football.
It’s not just Messi, 35, who is taking his last swing at glory for the nation. His competitor for the world’s best footballer’s label for more than a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, with five Ballon d’Ors, is also looking for a final flourish though, statistically, Argentina have a better chance of winning than Ronaldo’s Portugal.
In the four World Cups he has played since 2006, Messi has only six goals in 19 games, with 2014 being his most successful campaign, with four hits on target when Argentina reached the final. In five Copa América tournaments, he has 11 goals in 26 games, though he found deliverance somewhat with a title this year for Argentina. This compares a little poorly to the 474 goals he scored in 520 Spanish La Liga matches over 17 years with Barcelona. Across competitions, he is Barcelona’s all-time top scorer, with 670 from 778 matches, according to Goal.com.
Ronaldo’s record in La Liga is even more impressive, though he spent a shorter nine seasons there with Real Madrid. His 311 goals in 292 matches include four Champions League and three La Liga titles. When he moved to Juventus, he hit the back of the net 81 times in 94 Italian Serie A matches—another impressive statistic. But Ronaldo, like Messi, has been underwhelming on the biggest stage, scoring seven times in 17 starts across four World Cups, according to the data on ESPN.
For the two greatest footballers of this generation, Qatar 2022 is a final test.
“Winning the World Cup is one of the most prestigious accomplishments in any footballer’s life,” says former India player Robin Singh, who will be a television expert on Viacom18 Sports’ FIFA World Cup 2022 panel. Dismissing any thoughts on the two players’ legacies, he notes: “But for me personally, you build your legacy with each passing game and each passing season. The likes of Ronaldo and Messi are the greatest because they have made and broken records each season and pushed the boundaries of what you can achieve. Judging a footballer on if he’s won the World Cup isn’t fair. Some of the best in history haven’t won the World Cup, like Zico, Luís Figo...”
Paul Masefield, a television pundit for Star Sports’ Indian Super League (ISL) coverage, feels part of the reason for Messi’s lack of success on the biggest stage is the teams he has played with. “Let’s be honest, Maradona is the only player I know who has won a World Cup without a support cast. Look at the goals he scored in that World Cup (1986)—he was unplayable. Messi has a better cast of players than Maradona did, but Maradona single-handedly won that World Cup, which is for me the greatest player of all time.”
With each passing World Cup, the task for both Messi and Ronaldo has only become tougher. Already, both players are slowing down in European club football—Messi was not even included in the 30-man list for the 2022 Ballon d’Or, his first omission since 2005 (Benzema won the award).
“Maradona did it half-way through his career. If Messi could do this now at the end of his career, it would be an unbelievable achievement. But I don’t see Argentina winning this year,” Masefield adds.
Even if time has cruelly caught up with these two champion players, desire may not have yet diminished. At English Premier League’s Manchester United, a sulking Ronaldo is still looking for a club team that could get him into the Champions League, showing enough signs of burning ambition. Messi is only marginally slowing down too—he has seven goals this season in 13 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain. On the off-chance that Ronaldo makes it to 2026, at age 41, he might still not have the team to win a title with.
“They may be disappointed (about not winning the World Cup) as individuals but that does not hold for the rest of the world, because Messi and Ronaldo have been unbelievable for two decades,” Masefield says. “People see them as two of the best players of the generation. You have to say that maybe the countries they are playing for don’t have the best supporting players. But you can’t choose the country you are born in.”
“Every footballer,” Singh adds, “has a shelf life but we as footballers never look to play for the day we have to stop. We play every game as (if) it’s our last and sometimes push ourselves to give one more season or one more game since we are what we are from what the sport has given us.
“With the advancements in sports science, footballers are pushing the limits of their bodies and elongating their careers. Prime examples are definitely Ronaldo and Zlatan (Ibrahimović).”
Ronaldo is already the top-scoring player in international football, with 117 goals in 191 appearances for Portugal. He has declared that he wants to play the Euros in 2024, but, increasingly, his place in the Portuguese squad is being questioned as the sheen wears off his untouchable status. Qatar is his—and Messi’s—chance to prove that it’s not over till it’s over.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets at @iArunJ.