Amid the exultation, a GOAT debate and where Messi stands

Updated on Dec 20, 2022 04:20 AM IST

The Lionel Messi saga came full circle on a mad Sunday night in Doha, culminating in a swansong dreams are made of, as Argentina beat France (3-3 at the end of extra time, 4-2 on penalties) in arguably the greatest final of all time.

In this aerial view fans of Argentina celebrate winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup against France at the Obelisk in Buenos Aires, on December 18, 2022. (AFP)
In this aerial view fans of Argentina celebrate winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup against France at the Obelisk in Buenos Aires, on December 18, 2022. (AFP)
By, Doha

The story began when a 13-year-old boy left home for Barcelona. It meandered from one glorious chapter to another as he won title after title in Spain and across Europe, collecting Ballon d’Ors by the bucketful along the way. But it also had moments of heartbreaks, usually at World Cups, and particularly in 2014 when he came within whiffing distance of that elusive trophy.

The Lionel Messi saga came full circle on a mad Sunday night in Doha, culminating in a swansong dreams are made of, as Argentina beat France (3-3 at the end of extra time, 4-2 on penalties) in arguably the greatest final of all time.

Forget his great club rival Cristiano Ronaldo (sorry, it’s true), the World Cup cemented Messi’s place as the third member of football’s highest pantheon, alongside Diego Maradona and Pele, the two other GOAT (Greatest of All Time) candidates.

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If it was hard enough to pick between Pele and Maradona, Messi has added a third leg to football’s unanswerable question: Is he ahead of them, or behind them? But, tempting as it may be, it’s a little soon to get into that debate.

Apart from his four Champions League titles, 10 La Liga crowns, one Ligue 1 title, one Copa America, and seven Ballon d’Ors, it has taken 172 internationals including a record 26 at the World Cup, and 98 goals, for Messi to become a world champion. It’s a tag that Pele earned at 17, Diego Maradona at 25, and Kylian Mbappe at 19. He may be 35, but Messi really couldn’t ask for more. For it may have taken a while for Messi to enter this club, but entered it he has.

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He said on Sunday that he would like to stick around with the national team for some more time before he hangs up the white-and-blue jersey. “I want to enjoy a couple of more matches being a world champion,” Messi said. “I love football, what I do. I enjoy being part of the national team, the group,” he told sports channel TyC.

The “group”, forged so well by the other Lionel (Argentina manager Scaloni) that it is called “La Scaloneta”, has helped Messi be at his best again. Apart from young players such as Enzo Fernandes, who famously went on social media to request Messi to not retire in 2016 and Julian Alvarez, whose photos seeking Messi’s autograph in 2012 went viral last week, it’s a group that has Messi’s old friend Angel di Maria, and Sergio Aguero, who could only be in the stands at Lusail Stadium due to a heart ailment but stepped on the pitch to carry Messi on his shoulders.

“He’s the best in history, no doubt about it and he showed that in the game. He’s been showing in during the whole tournament… at this age,” Rodrigo de Paul, another key member of the group, told ESPN after the final.

Scaloni said on Sunday that he was delighted Messi wanted to stick around, and that a spot would be saved for him even in the next World Cup. “He is more than entitled to decide what he wants to do with his career. It is such a huge pleasure to coach him. Everything he transmits to his team mates is something unparalleled,” he added, though it might be a bridge too far.

Soon after, videos shared by Nicolas Otamendi showed Messi jumping with the trophy on a table in the changing room. And the maestro, who did not attend the post-match press conference, was seen leading the team out of the mixed zone — barefoot, the World Cup cradled in his arms like a boy with his favourite toy.

An open-top bus parade through the Lusail Boulevard later in the night threw traffic out of gear. And as it did, it appeared to connect Doha with the flooded Plaza de la Republica in Buenos Aires, and with far-flung places across the globe — from Kolkata to Karachi, Sydney to Sarajevo, London to Lagos — where the name Messi, world champion or not, always spelt magic.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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