Lionel Messi has the farewell he wished for. Or the stage in front of it, anyway. On Sunday the forward – a familiar one failure at international level – playing his sixth major final with Argentina. It will be his 26th World Cup match, more than anyone ever, another record; it will also be his last.
“It makes me happy to be able to end my journey in the final, and everything I’ve experienced here is beautiful,” Messie said at the end of another night, blessed with another moment, as a gift: something to hold on to. keep it when he’s gone. That’s four days away now.
Four to dawn. A night. Everyone ‘knew’ that this would be Messi’s last World Cup, the feeling that you might never see him again clung to every game. He knew that, too, which is part of the reason it played out the way it did: call it mission, destination, or just enjoy. Seize the day, there are not many left. And yet, 16 years after his first, as a substitute in That 6-0 win against Serbia and Montenegro, still audible. Wait what? The final will be your last? “Yes, it certainly will be,” Messi said on Tuesday night. “It will be many years until the next one [World Cup] and I don’t think I’ll make it. Finishing like this is nice.”
So this is goodbye as far as Argentina is concerned. Still, what a way to go. It’s not over yet: the greatest game of all awaits. It is, of course, colossal. But even getting there felt a little bit like something had been gained, like some realization had been achieved. By Messi and about Messi. You only know what you have when it is (almost) gone. Late at Lusail Stadium, an Argentinian Level 0 television reporter opted not to ask her final question. Instead, and you may have already seen the clip, she used it to say thank you: “Whatever the result, you’ve made people happy,” she said. “You made an impact on everyone’s life.”
In the end, he made himself happy too, with more than a little help from friends new and old. At the end of the 2016 Copa América, defeated by Chile in the final, he had walked away. He hadn’t always felt embraced, the weight was overwhelming; he said he started to feel like everything was his fault. As it was said to him here: “You had to eat a lot of shit.” Yes, he admitted, but things are different now. “I’ve been enjoying everything that happens to us for a while now. It makes me happy to be able to close all this in the final.”
This is the teaching of the manager, Lionel Scaloni: tomorrow the sun will rise. Messi has embraced that message and the time left for him; it has also become his message, and there is a sense that his teammates are not only invested in Argentina’s success, but also in his happiness, in doing some kind of justice.
“People have understood that this is something we should enjoy,” said Messi. “We have done extraordinary things: the Copa America, the 36 games unbeaten, a World Cup final. Of course we all want to win, but it is a football game and anything can happen. Hopefully this will be different than in Brazil [in 2014, when they lost against Germany]. I don’t know if this is my best World Cup, but I’m enjoying it since we got here.”
In Qatar, he has five goals and three assists. The great moments here are his. The goal against Mexico and the goal against Australia, so bad Messi both, seen a thousand times if not quite like this. The absurd assist against Croatia, instant iconography: Josko Gvardiol, the defender everyone was talking about, turned inside out and back again, hips broken, legs tied in a cartoon knot.
Messi leads the tournament stats in goals, assists, chances created, dribbles and fouls suffered. Which still hasn’t stopped him. He played every minute. He has been Maradona. He has been Maradonaing, in reality. And that’s not just about the excellence; there is the energy, the expression of devotion, identification. The offer. Messi had been holding his hamstring for a long time, then he did That to Gvardiol. It is about the absolute refusal to let go: he was the one who stated that this had not happened after the defeat of Saudi Arabia. The lead that pulls them through. There may not be a moment of skill like the semi-final, but that doesn’t compare to the release of his goal against Mexico.
A flash of anger preceded the goal against Australia. The confrontations against the Netherlands. The edge, the aggression, the mess if you will. The: what are you looking at, idiot? The Argentinian fans loved that. Messi seems to have that too. “He’s always been like this,” Scaloni insists, and there’s a fierce, furious competitor in him, but the fact that the coach had to say that was instructive. They’ve never felt him this close, and he’s never felt them this way. This isn’t just a competition, it’s a goal. A revolt.
“Sometimes it’s an extreme situation, it’s not easy to go out on the field knowing you have to win or you go home. We’ve been doing that since the second game. That has a very high mental price, and the group overcame that,” he said. “We played five ‘finals’ and we have one more.”
It would be wrong to forget how he’s pulled them to finals before, but this is something else. He looks different, sounds different, acts different. Not least because it is another generation traveling with him, changing his role, relieving some of the weight of the past, left behind. But there is also a legacy, says Scaloni, in what he leaves them. They, in turn, were desperate to give him this last dance.
“What he did in the Copa America was incredible, but I’ve never seen anything like this World Cup in my life,” said goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. Cristian Romero added: “It’s madness. Everyone knows what he is as a player, but it’s the kind of person he is. He is an example, a man who always wants more. He’s been hit so many times, but he always gets back up.”
A photo has been doing the rounds in recent days: it shows an 11-year-old Julián Álvarez next to his idol, Lionel Messi. Eleven years later, he has another: teammates this time, Messi holding him in a headlock and beaming after the Manchester City striker scored against Croatia.
“The things Leo can do are incredible,” he said, and had seen that first hand, there to pull off an impossible assist, the best in the league. Except maybe the one Messi gave to Nahuel Molina in the previous round.
Messi had delivered that pass and the tackle pass that released Álvarez, running and bundling through, to score the second. It was Enzo Fernández, meanwhile, who had thrown the ball that led to Messi scoring the first, through the penalty spot. And he, too, had grown up watching the man who put Argentina in charge grab them and drag them to a second World Cup final, just like Maradona.
In 2016, when Messi was contemplating running away, Fernández posted a message on Facebook saying sorry and thank you. It read: “How are we, a bunch of nobody who can’t live with 1% of the pressure you have, 40 million people who make ridiculous demands for perfection when we don’t even know you, try to convince you? Do what you want, but remember to stay and enjoy it.
Now he is finally, the time of his life and that of those who lead us all to a final farewell.