Messi or Ronaldo? Messi or Maradona? These are debates the soccer world have beaten into the ground for the last decade and a half. Thankfully, those silly exercises of banging heads against a wall expecting an outcome are over. Lionel Messi, at 35 years of age, cemented his legacy in Qatar with one of the most iconic performances we’ve ever seen.
Just as it looked as if the greatest soccer player of his generation would go off into the sunset with claiming the biggest prize in the sport, all the pieces merged together as if fate were guiding them all along.
Past his prime and a step off his best, there was hope that this last run at a World Cup would be Messi and Argentina’s chance at glory. Hope is one thing, but actually believing that it would happen is another. After a shock opening loss to Saudi Arabia it appeared that the dream was dashed. Like so many times before, it would be heartbreak and disappointment at the international stage for Messi.
Then something changed.
Almost like a caterpillar shedding its cocoon, Messi came to life and resuscitated Argentina from the brink of another failure. Except this was unlike the Messi we’ve all come to know over the past 18 magnificent years. Usually always calm and stoic in demeanor, something clicked and triggered a side of the legend we rarely see. The dramatic quarterfinal win over the Netherlands exemplified this metamorphosis as Messi once again played his part but did so with a passion and fervor rarely exuded. Following the deciding penalty shootout, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner could be seen gloating in front of Louis van Gaal and Edgar Davids. Later, during a post-game interview, he would taught opposing striker Wout Weghorst with playful insults. Messi wanted this World Cup for Argentina more than anything he’s ever wanted in his career and it began to show.
Leo Messi (to Weghorst during the post match interview): "What are you looking at, fool? Go back there, dummy. Get back there, yes."— ARG Soccer News ™ ⚽ (@ARG_soccernews) December 10, 2022
Messi turned his inner Maradona on. pic.twitter.com/jD6O2bpEgP
After a 3-0 dismantling of Croatia in the semis, in which Messi against played a starring role, turning back the clock with style and grace in the final third, the stage was set for a showdown final against France. A scene all too familiar for Leo, who experienced the heartbreak of losing the World Cup final in 2014 when Mario Gotze scored in extra time.
This time was different. Argentina roared out to a 2-0 first half lead against the uber-talented France after Messi scored the opening penalty and played a part in a beautiful team goal. Just as it looked as if the trophy was in his grasp, the game flipped on its head when Kylian Mbappe scored two goals within 90 seconds of each other to bring the score level. All of the dread and shame of his international failures had to be flooding in. His last opportunity slipping away.
Messi appeared to have written the most outrageous of endings in stoppage time, when he broke the deadlock with a goal in the 108th minute only for his team to concede a penalty late on. Another blown chance for glory, his team ruining all of his hard work. That’s how the story seemed to be inevitably progress. Yet, somehow, Messi and Argentina would not be denied their destiny. Emi Martinez’s late one-on-one save in extra time and penalty heroics ensured that story would have a happy ending, perhaps one we’ll see in a Hollywood film one day.
The trophy lift for Messi and Argentina pic.twitter.com/ubkElRznPx— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
Lionel Messi didn’t need to win the World Cup to be considered the Greatest Of All-Time in many people’s eyes. But the fact that he did, and did so as the focal point at such a late stage in his career, puts to rest any debate. No one ever questioned Messi’s resume except for his international exploits. The knock on him by detractors was that he had always had help from the likes of Pep Guardiola’s tactics or Andres Iniesta and Xavi playing behind him. This triumph puts to bed any doubt that he’s capable of carrying a team to its ultimate goal when it matters most.
What makes this tournament run so special is the way his personality noticeably changed throughout it. The desire and drive to finally win the only prize that has eluded transformed a usually reserved superstar into one willing to do anything to make sure the goal was reached. That’s the true mark of a great athlete.
The pressure of an entire nation has been on his shoulders from the day he stepped on the field for Barcelona. His own country has even chastised him at times for not being able to produce at the international level like he did for his club. All of those doubts and questions from critics and fans alike are now washed away. An immaculate career has culminated on the biggest stage, leaving no question who the greatest men’s soccer player of all-time is.
Debates in sports will always happen. But the talk surrounding Messi’s career will no longer be comparing him to Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, or Pele. The only logical debate now is where he stacks up with Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, and the rest as the greatest athlete of all-time.