Photography: Lars Baron/Getty Images
Does it really matter that Lionel Messi wins a World Cup? This will now be the story of the scorching days of his last world tournament leading up to Sunday’s final.
The reality is something else. In fact, looking at Messi here, the opposite seemed to be the case. It wasn’t just peak performance and pushing and defining moments, but all those things carved out of thin air in his own unique physical style, a footballer who, at 35, was able to basically invent this thing at his own picture.
Football will always be the most literal, results-oriented form of sporting mayhem. But whatever the final blows to this fever dream of a winter World Cup, one thing seems indisputably true. The little badger silhouette in the loose blue and white jersey, this man who turns the game against the iron fist of the Croatian midfielder, is already the best footballer who has ever played.
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He has been for ages, it was also the last time he reached a World Cup final, eight years ago, just in slightly different form. And there was something of the throwback, the footballing equivalent of a sentimental wedding anniversary dance, about the third and final goal in that drunken semi-final victory for Messi.
It was 69 minutes past when Messi took the ball on the right. Right away, there was something different about his walk, that buried, furious sense of purpose. He dropped a shoulder. He zapped. Expect. He does Messi redux. He does the wingman thing.
Messi drove Josko Gvardiol into the box, holding his man back, constantly touching the ball like a pick hammering a piece of bark. Then he did a backward pirouette, a kind of decoy, before heading back towards the goal and again inside Gvardiol, who is, let’s not forget, 20 years old and the defender of this tournament, but who is now here being rinsed, and rinsed again like a damp cloth.
From there, Messi had the space to roll the ball back 45 degrees for Julián Álvarez to kill the game. The run, the pass, the finish, it all felt like a kind of mnemonic, a memory of Messi, another ghost of this Ghost World Cup.
But each of those late Messi knockout games has a strange sense of peril around it. Could this be it? Are we saying goodbye to something here? If so, there will be a suitable wake. Lusail Stadium is a thing of aggressive splendor within, from the sides stretching out to its closing roof, a stretch of darkness above the summit surrounded by vast steel braces like an open mouth screaming skyward.
The Argentine supporters had an end, although any attempt to create an authentic atmosphere was of course drowned out by the dumb, mind-numbing PA. Hopefully it will be recalled for the final because something is going on here with the Argentinian fans.
As we descended through the halls there was again a sort of spontaneous procession of San Gennaro, the blue and white shirts singing, stamping, waving their litany of relics, the cardboard severed head of Maradona, the flags, the vestments and miraculous trinkets. There is always something devotional in Argentine football. At this tournament, it felt like a sort of celebration of faith, a parade of Messi revivalists.
Argentina needed their spark here as Croatia dominated the ball from the start, with the upper midfielder’s genes coming into play. It has already been suggested that Luka Modric looks like a little boy dressed as a witch. This is no longer the case.
He now looks like a teenager dressed as a witch. And he was brilliant here for 20 minutes, until another kind of fate intervened.
The first goal came out of nowhere. Enzo Fernández played a straight pass into space behind the Croatian defence. There was Álvarez sprinting but he was knocked down as he passed the ball past Dominik Livakovic. Messi took the ball carefully, securing his feet, then produced an irreversible penalty, zinced into the roof of the net. It was Messi’s fifth goal at this World Cup and also, oddly enough, his fourth at the self-proclaimed ‘Iconic’ stadium. If you build it, it will come, apparently.
Related: Inspired Lionel Messi takes Argentina past Croatia and into World Cup final
Then something else happened, as Álvarez, who was brilliant all game, scored a wonderfully direct faux-Diego to make it 2-0. Was there a stranger goal at the World Cup? It was Maradona ’86 recreated after closing time using wheelie bins and a tennis ball.
Messi gave the final pass deep in his own half. And from there, Álvarez had the clear grass ahead of him, accompanied by a terrified rolling retreat. He continued to run. And kept on running. Basically, he ran in a straight line for 60 yards with the ball, tackled the last two defenders and had the skill to produce a delicate little finish, almost after the fact, like touching at the end of a run.
By the end, Messi had scored one, made one, touched the ball 63 times, dribbed more than anyone else on the pitch and acted as the fatherly force guiding the destiny to perfection.
And now then? Is Messi about to decorate this thing, this Death World Cup, with his dream ending? Does it matter a lot anyway? His genius exists in those moments, the figure mooching there under the lights, smaller, older, more everyday than the super-athletes around him, the normcore Mozart mooching for these extraordinary things to happen again.