Qatar 2022 is a World Cup tournament in name only.
The build-up, the time of year, the lack of warm-up games, the host nation’s attitude towards human rights abuses and more just doesn’t sit right with many supporters of the beautiful game.
It is, however, another opportunity for one country to take home the greatest soccer prize the planet has to offer.
A chance to be top of the world order for at least the next four years.
For one player, perhaps more than any other, it also represents a last chance to underscore his monumental legacy to a game that he has served so well.
Lionel Messi will be playing in his last World Cup finals and has, for all intents and purposes, rewritten the history books to this point and written his name large right across them.
His place in the annals isn’t in doubt, though his inability to help secure a World Cup win for his beloved Argentina has always been used as a stick to beat him with when it comes to discussing the greatest players across the decades.
Pele won three they’ll say. Zidane laid his hands on the trophy back in 1998 of course. Yada, yada, yada.
Whilst it’s not quite a preposterous argument, it neatly bypasses the incredible and indelible mark that La Pulga will leave behind when he finally decides to hang up his boots — which might well come as soon as the end of this season from a competitive European standpoint.
A couple of seasons, potentially in MLS or a league much less taxing on his aging limbs, but where he’s still able to showcase his unique and enviable skillset to its fullest, wouldn’t be the worst way to ride off into the sunset.
By any standard metric, Messi is metaphorically head and shoulders above his contemporaries. The many, many individual awards and wins in domestic cup finals or European finals are a constant reminder of his consistent mastery.
He trails in career goals to his eternal rival, Cristiano Ronaldo — another legendary player expected to be playing his last World Cup this winter — but can legitimately claim to be better in almost every other aspect.
However, that argument is moribund these days and certainly won’t be explored in any depth in this column.
Suffice it to say that on this occasion, it’s difficult to see what Ronaldo will add to the Portuguese squad other than his experience in past tournaments. At 37 his star is fading fast, and he might just have bitten off more than he can chew in trying to match his nemesis this time.
Alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappe et al, Messi comes into the tournament in better personal form and, arguably, in a much better frame of mind.
He appears happy and settled, in stark contrast to Manchester United’s talisman.
In fact, everything has slotted into place for Leo at just the right time. However, back in 2014, it also appeared that Messi’s time had finally come.
Argentina had a strong squad in Brazil and were difficult to beat, but in their biggest moment they didn’t have the cutting edge required and the ever-ruthless German squad destroyed their dream in the final during extra time.
A man-of-the-match award for Messi was scant consolation for having to walk past that golden trophy without being able to lay both his hands on it and lift it aloft.
The recent Copa America triumph may have gone some way to assuaging the pain of that defeat, with Messi’s tears of joy at the end of their final victory over Brazil genuine and uncontrollable.
Throughout that particular tournament, both Argentina as a group and Messi himself looked strong, confident and ready to take on all comers.
Under the tutelage of Lionel Scaloni, La Albiceleste are reborn. So much so that they are unbeaten in 35 games at the time of writing, and are just a handful from breaking Italy’s international record.
Not that it will be on the player’s minds when they take to the field against Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland in their Group C matches.
That’s because there is only one goal.
If it is Messi that gets his hands on the trophy on Dec. 18, the naysayers that continue to denigrate his vast canon of work and achievements will be forced back in their box. Literally nowhere else for them to go.
It’s already nigh on impossible to dispute his standing in any event, and yet the lack of a World Cup can always fill up a few more column inches.
Despite an unbeatable and frankly obscene seven Ballons d’Or, more man-of-the-match performances than you can shake a stick at, innumerable ‘worldies’ that could make up a best goal ever compilation all on their own, the most goals and assists for club — Barcelona — and country, ever, as well as in Spain, and many more records besides, it still appears that Leo Messi has got to prove himself once more.
Let’s be crystal clear here.
A World Cup final win for Argentina is hugely important for the country as a whole, the squad and for Messi himself. It would, in a sense, elevate Leo to a place where the air is so rarified that he might just be the only player to inhabit it.
It would stop, in an instant, the often embarrassing comparisons to Diego Maradona. To Cristiano Ronaldo. To Pele, and to just about any other player with a reasonable enough stat that hacks can find an angle for.
Lionel Messi’s legacy was already secured long before Qatar 2022, and whatever happens over the next four weeks won’t change that.
Indeed, a World Cup Final win will only enhance it.