The 2022 World Cup Final, between reigning champions France, and 2014 runners-up Argentina, was in many ways about the apprentice supplanting the master. French superstar Kylian Mbappe had helped France win the trophy four years earlier; now he hoped to emulate the great Pelé in winning consecutive tournaments.
In his way? A towering icon of the modern game. A player who had become one half of an infamous footballing rivalry. A superstar who could arguably claim to be the greatest of his generation, and perhaps the greatest of all time, if not for the one glaring omission from his sparkling collection of medals and accolades. I refer, of course, to Argentine hero Lionel Messi.
It seemed highly unlikely that Messi would become a transcendent figure in world sport when his career began at the tender age of just six years old. Messi played for various youth teams for local Argentine side Newell’s Old Boys, and would score nearly 500 goals in his time there, defying his diminutive stature and quiet demeanor. However, Messi learned of a hormonal issue that affected his growth, and Newell’s Old Boys were unwilling to contribute towards the costly treatment required to help Messi. It is this which set him on a course towards Barcelona, and history.
Messi had family in Catalonia, and through those connections, he gained a trial with the Spanish club in September 2000. Coaches wanted to sign him right away, but the club’s board were more hesitant; commiting to such a young player (Messi was no more than 13 at this point) was unheard of, but in December 2000, following an ultimatum, a deal was done, a contract signed, and from there, Messi shot through the ranks of various youth sides, lighting up every stage. He made his first-team debut for Barcelona on the 16th of November 2003, at the age of 16, and became a regular starter by the 2006/07 season, where he scored 17 goals in 36 appearances.
From that point forward, Messi would dazzle and amaze supporters and rivals alike. Brazil’s (and Barcelona’s) Ronaldinho said that Messi would surpass him. Alongside the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets, Messi formed part of a ruthlessly creative side, and his role in Barcelona’s success cannot be overstated.
Messi had not one, not two, but three dangerous elements to his game that contributed so much to the success of Barcelona. His ability to score goals (so often going for delicate, elegant placement of the ball, rather than raw power) is beyond any doubt. 474 La Liga goals in 520 appearances, 56 goals in 80 cup matches, and 120 goals in 149 European fixtures speaks for itself. In total, Messi scored 672 goals in 778 Barcelona appearances, his La Liga goals are a record, not just for club but for the league itself, and 36 La Liga hat-tricks also stand as a league record, as do right Champions League hat-tricks.
Messi also holds the record for the most assists in La Liga. His ability to weight a pass, and his unerring accuracy, are why he has 192 assists to his name, and those are merely the chances his teammates took. Whether played across the grass or played over the top, Messi can deliver a ball with the same grace and beauty that he displays when shooting. His vision is impeccable, and his technique is second-to-none.
The third quality is the fear factor. Messi’s ball control, goal-scoring attributes, and his ability to concisely spray passes makes him a marked man. Opposing teams have often directly three or four men to try and crowd Messi out, yet he will almost inevitably find a pass, and suddenly, several opposing players are out of position, and vulnerable to attack.
The array of honours to come Messi’s way is a comprehensive list. He has received 10 winner’s medals for La Liga. He’s lifted the Copa del Rey seven times. On four occasions he’s had a Champion’s League winner’s medal draped around his neck. He’s also received two medals for helping Paris St Germain win the French Ligue 1 title. On a personal level, Messi has won the Ballon d’Or on seven occasions, including four times in a row from 2009-2012. He’s won the European Golden Shoe (given to the top scorer across Europe’s top leagues) six times. There’s a host of other awards, but to list them all would turn this post into a monstrously lengthy beast.
The Biggest Prize of All
In 2014, Lionel Messi won the Golden Ball Award at the World Cup. The award is given to the best player, and Messi, who had guided Argentina to the World Cup Final, was deemed – not without a few doubters – to be the player of the tournament. However, Argentina lost the Final to old foes Germany, so the personal prize would have been scant consolation.
Messi’s performances for Argentina were often seen as not quite being to the same standards as for his clubs. He scored plenty of goals (at the time of writing this, 103 in 175 appearances), but most came in friendlies. Frequent comparisons to the late, great Diego Maradona must have been frustrating, even though they were also undeniable. Maradona had lifted the World Cup for Argentina in 1986, and Argentine fans had been desperately waiting for another talisman to bring the the biggest prize of all home to them. Messi had had opportunities, yet defeat in the 2014 Final was the closest he had come to emulating Maradona, and Maradona’s shadow loomed large.
Come the 2022 World Cup, in the unique setting of Qatar, Messi, now age 35, and arguably in the twilight of his career, no longer had the pace to run at defenders. His game had evolved, and now it was as much about the defence-splitting pass as it was about the dribbling. Combined with an exquisite sense of positioning, Messi reminded everyone why he had become such a legend. Shockingly, Argentina lost their opening game against Saudi Arabia, they proceeded to show a resilience and strength that saw them overcome all obstacles, on their way to the Final.
So, here we were. Messi, the old master, who had won it all save the World Cup, against the young pretender who had already won the World Cup. Would Mbappe outshine his PSG colleague?
After 120 minutes of an enthralling, tense game, Mbappe had scored a hat-trick, becoming the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final since Sir Geoff Hurst in 1966 for England. However, Messi scored twice himself, and as he had shown on many occasions before, Messi had ice in his veins during the decisive shootout. Argentina triumphed, and Lionel Messi finally added a World Cup Winner’s medal to his collection.
As I type, Messi is still playing, for Inter Miami in the USA. I believe he understands that he has peaked, and now he wishes to enjoy the final phase of what has been a glorious, sublime career, filled with golden moments, and a nearly unprecedented line-up of trophies and medals. The world will remember Messi for all the right reasons; a rapier-sharp player, dynamic, clever, and nearly always unplayable. Simply the best.