The Argentine icon can win football’s biggest prize this weekend
Lionel Messi has produced his trademark magic in Qatar to lead Argentina to the brink of World Cup success.
Five goals, three assists, and some moments of sheer brilliance from the Argentine captain have illuminated the tournament over the past month.
Aged 35, Messi has said that this will be his World Cup swansong; the meeting with France on Sunday affords one final chance to win the only major silverware that has eluded him during his illustrious career.
Messi is inarguably the best player of his generation in the famous blue and white of La Albiceleste– and arguably of all-time.
He is Argentina’s all-time top goalscorer on 96 strikes, and their record appearance-maker with 171 caps.
On Sunday, Messi is set to become the outright record holder for World Cup appearances, breaking a current tie of 25 matches with German legend Lothar Matthaus.
READ MORE: Messi reveals what drove Argentina to World Cup final
Despite the numbers and the landmarks, Messi has so often been cast as living in the shadow of the last man to lead Argentina to the World Cup – the late, great Diego Maradona.
This weekend, Messi has a chance to match the feat that Maradona achieved in 1986, and to cap a 17-year international career that has been far from easy.
Indeed, the long road to Sunday’s showpiece at the Lusail Stadium has been a bumpy one – even for a player as preternaturally gifted as Messi.
Messi’s international career may have taken a very different path, had Spanish football bosses had their way.
After Messi moved to Barcelona as a youngster and emerged as a child prodigy at their fabled La Masia academy, officials
are said to have made informal approaches to entice him to the Spanish national team.
However, Messi was loyal to the country of his birth, and his future with Argentina was cemented by appearances for the U20 team in 2004.
Messi was tipped for superstardom from an early age.
© Jorge Dominelli / El Grafico / Getty Images
His exploits at youth level as an U20 world champion were enough to earn him a call-up to Jose Pekerman’s senior team.
He made his debut on August 17, 2005, in a friendly against Hungary in Budapest as a substitute – but what should have been a special occasion ended in tears as Messi was sent off after just 40 seconds.
Nonetheless, his fortunes improved when he made his starting debut against Peru in a World Cup qualifier, winning the penalty that secured victory for the Albiceleste.
Pekerman was already describing Messi as a
“jewel,” and on March 1, 2006, Messi scored his first goal for Argentina in a friendly against Croatia.
A taste of disappointment
Messi’s progress continued as he was selected for the Argentina squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany – a tournament he arrived at as a Champions League winner with Barcelona, even though he had missed the final against Arsenal due to injury.
Messi became the youngest player ever to represent Argentina at the tournament when he entered the action against Serbia in the group stages.
Within minutes, he had provided an assist for Argentina’s fourth goal and scored their sixth in a rout – becoming the youngest scorer in that edition of the World Cup.
Messi netted his first World Cup goal in 2006.
© Matt Roberts / Offside / Getty Images
Messi made his first World Cup start in the final group game against the Netherlands, which ended goalless, and again started the last-16 win against Mexico.
But he didn’t feature for the rest of the tournament as Pekerman snubbed him for a 4-2 penalty shootout loss to hosts Germany in the quarterfinals – to disapproval from many Argentine fans and pundits.
The 20-year-old Messi was already one of the best players in the world at the Copa America in 2007.
Argentina were favorites in Venezuela under Pekerman’s successor, Alfio Basile, and Messi scored in the quarterfinals against Peru and semifinals against Mexico.
In the final, however, Argentina fell 3-0 to a second-string Brazil team and Messi experienced his first major heartbreak in national team colors – an omen of things to come at the showpiece South American tournament.
Barcelona tried to prevent Messi from representing Argentina at the Beijing 2008 Olympics until new manager Pep Guardiola intervened.
Messi exacted some degree of revenge against Brazil as Argentina thrashed them 3-0 in the semifinal, before going on to clinch gold with a 1-0 win against Nigeria in the final.
In the shadow of Maradona
Messi was already a two-time Champions League winner with Barcelona and was awarded his maiden Ballon d’Or in 2009, making comparisons with Maradona hard to escape.
Messi had even scored a carbon copy of Maradona’s famous 1986 World Cup goal when the youngster slalomed from his own half to score in a 2007 Copa Del Rey game against Getafe at Camp Nou.
But until he could deliver on the highest stage for his country, many felt Messi was not ready to enter the pantheon housing such greats of the game as the man regarded as a footballing ‘God’ among many of his countrymen.
Somewhat ironically, Messi’s next failure with Argentina would come with Maradona as his manager at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Argentina suffered their worst margin of defeat at a World Cup since 1974 against a young Germany team that outclassed them 4-0 in the quarterfinals.
The master and the disciple: Maradona’s partnership with Messi in 2010 was not a success.
© Richard Heathcote / Getty Images
Messi failed to live up to expectations, unable to drag an average team to the title and leaving South Africa without scoring a single goal.
Still shining for Barcelona, Messi struggled to transfer his performances to the national team, leading to accusations that he cared more about club than country.
A home Copa America in 2011 even saw Messi and Argentina booed by their own fans – something which would now seem inconceivable.
Though he provided an assist to equalize in the quarterfinals, Argentina were ultimately eliminated by eventual Copa America winners Uruguay on penalties.
Messi finally took the bull by the horns at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
By that stage firmly installed as captain of the Argentine team, Messi didn’t arrive in the best of shape after an injury-filled season for Barca.
Nonetheless, he scored four goals en route to the final against Germany, setting himself up to achieve what many felt was his destiny to end Argentina’s World Cup wait.
Again it was to be disappointment, as Messi failed to make his mark in the final and Mario Gotze’s extra-time goal won it for Germany.
So near and yet so far: Messi missed out in 2014.
© Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
One of the most enduring images of the tournament showed a gaunt Messi walking past the famous World Cup trophy on a pedestal as he collected his runners-up medal – so near, and yet so far.
Messi left Brazil with the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player, but without the prize he coveted most.
Reunited with his former Barca boss Tata Martino, Messi led Argentina to another Copa America final in 2015.
But history would repeat itself. Messi couldn’t find a way through a tough Chilean defense in the final, and he was the only one to score his penalty in a 4-1 shootout defeat to the hosts.
Messi faced criticism for not delivering the title, and for supposed indiscretions such as not singing the national anthem with the same kind of gusto that Maradona had done during his day.
Messi endured more agony at the Copa America in 2015 and 2016.
© Miguel Tovar / LatinContent via Getty Images
Just 12 months later, he had a chance for redemption at a Centenary edition of the Copa America in 2016 on US soil.
Missing Argentina’s first group game, he scored a 19-minute hat-trick when coming on as a substitute in a 5-0 win over Panama.
Yet further disappointment was to follow, with Argentina enduring Groundhog Day with a 0-0 draw and penalty shootout loss to Chile in the final.
The Messi U-turn: what made football superstar rethink retirement
The setback was too much to bear for Messi, who swiftly announced his international retirement.
“I tried my hardest. The team has ended for me, a decision [has been] made,” he protested.
It seemed as if Messi’s affair with his country would remain forever unconsummated by a major title.
But Messi finally felt love from the Argentine public, who campaigned for him to stay.
“It is a gift from God to have the best player in the world in a footballing country like ours… Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him,” demanded then-President Mauricio Macri.
Messi would reverse the decision and return for Argentina’s Russia 2018 qualification campaign, confessing that
“my love for my country and this shirt is too great.”
Ruin in Russia
Argentina faced a real risk of failing to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia until Messi scored a hat-trick to defeat Ecuador in the South American qualification group.
But when they did arrive in Russia, more World Cup disappointment awaited them.
After Argentina were humbled 3-0 in the group stage by eventual finalists Croatia, the national media even held a mock funeral and a minute’s silence for Jorge Sampaoli’s underachievers.
There was dejection for Messi in Russia four years ago.
© Tomek Jastrzebowski / NurPhoto via Getty Images
Messi still had something left in the tank with a goal of the tournament contender against Nigeria that granted passage to the last 16, but that was as far as Argentina would get.
A 4-3 defeat by eventual winners France felt like
a changing of the guard to golden boy Kylian Mbappe, with doubts over whether Messi would ever play on football’s biggest international stage again.
Failure in Russia was succeeded by more agony at the Copa America in 2019.
An outraged Messi was hit with a ban after criticizing match officials
in the aftermath of a 2-0 defeat to hosts and eventual champions Brazil in the semifinals in Belo Horizonte.
It seemed as if even a talent as prodigious as Messi’s would not be enough end Argentina’s wait for a major title, which was approaching three decades.
The curse, however, would be broken under the management of Lionel Scaloni at the 2021 Copa America in Brazil – a tournament that served to reinvigorate Messi’s international career.
Messi finally lifted the Copa America in 2021.
© MB Media / Getty Images
Messi was outstanding as Argentina overcame Brazil in the final at the Maracana,
winning 1-0 and breaking a 28-year hoodoo during which they had been deprived of major silverware.
After losing three finals in the Copa America and one in the World Cup, this time Messi’s tears were ones of joy.
The Copa America success was a landmark moment and heralded a change of mood among Messi, national team fans, and the Argentina camp as they prepared for their 2022 World Cup campaign.
Messi indicated on the eve of the tournament in Qatar that it would be his last World Cup, amping up the narrative and serving to motivate his teammates to do all they could not only for their country, but also their talisman.
Even after a seismic shock against Saudi Arabia in their opening game in Qatar – which ended a 36-match unbeaten run – skipper Messi called for calm and urged fans to stick with Scaloni’s squad.
Messi calls for unity after Saudi Arabia shocker
Messi was inspirational against Mexico with a textbook left-footed goal, and even though he missed a penalty against Poland, he was still prominent in a 2-0 win.
Helping to propel breakout youngsters Julian Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez to starring roles, Messi scored his first World Cup knockout phase goal in a 2-1 win over Australia in the last 16.
He was on target twice from the spot in a tense quarterfinal win against the Netherlands, once during the game and once in the shootout.
Messi saved his best performance of the tournament so far for Croatia in the semifinals.
After converting a first-half penalty, Messi conjured up a late something-out-of-nothing assist for Alvarez for Argentina’s third goal, proving again that he can be football’s ultimate difference-maker.
With five goals, Messi heads into Sunday’s final tied with French superstar Mbappe for the Golden Boot – but ahead by courtesy of goal contributions.
History for Messi as Argentina reach World Cup final
The feeling, however, is that Messi already has all the personal accolades he needs in a career in which he has been bestowed with seven Ballons d’Or and a multitude of titles with Barcelona.
What he – and the whole of Argentina – really craves is a World Cup.
“[I feel] a lot of happiness to be able to achieve this. To finish my World Cup career playing my last game in a final,” Messi said this week.
“Everything I’ve lived in this World Cup, what people experienced and how much the people back in Argentina are enjoying it all is very emotional.”
Messi’s place among the greats of the game is already assured, but the lingering comparisons with Maradona and regrets over ‘what might have been’ will again loom large, should Argentina fall short against France.
After all the ups and downs, Messi has one last chance to answer those questions and more on Sunday, in a date with destiny in Qatar.
December 16, 2022 at 05:27PM