A sea of bobbing heads dressed in Albiceleste — the blue-and-white colour of the night — had taken over the Lusail Boulevard. This was not just the celebrations of the National Day of Qatar but the outpouring of emotions for the Three Stars that had finally come Argentina’s way. The fireworks and the steaming jets were neither the attraction nor the distraction here as the eyes were only following the bus that had the champions who had made this possible.
But Lionel Messi, the hero of the night, was not easy to find as he was surrounded by his mates, wearing the Argentina flag like a superhero’s cape. His constant grappling with the burdens of past were finally a thing of the past, and his smile was melting everyone’s heart.
Forever he had been compared with the immortal standards of Diego and forever it seemed he was destined to fail, the cross too heavy for him and his comrades. Finals came and finals went, but a trophy in national colours could never be his as the Gods had decided to be cruel. But after four summits unscaled, the tide seemed to have turned with the 2021 Copa America triumph.
His unbeaten Argentina (36 games) had arrived in Doha as a favourite and there was a buzz of anticipation in every corner of the city since the World Cup started with the fanfare of BTS and Morgan Freeman on the 20th day of November. Every streetside conversation over kadak (chai), pleasantries swapped with stadium security officers, or casual conversations with shopkeepers from the coconut tree-, toddy shop-dotted India’s western coastal state had been about “Meesi”, his legacy and the battle with the imagery and joy that Maradona left for posterity.
But, that Lionel Messi would fulfill his destiny, rising from the Arabian desert to finally attain absolution, was always (in their mind) the end result of this expensively assembled World Cup, alongside a belief that their land — adopted or own — would become the permanent shrine for (one of) football’s greatest of all time.
An opening game loss to (the host’s) neighbour Saudi Arabia did not waver that belief, and their support and conviction remained steadfast. And when the moment arrived, the locals — an eclectic mix of thobe-clad Arabs and South Asians and Africans in their designer knockoffs — were all proud. Each etching in their memory the moment when the king, so long without a kingdom, was finally crowned. The furtive call home by the Bangladeshi restroom attender at the final whistle, eulogising the virtues of Messi and whispering “jibon sharthak hoyiya geche” (life is fulfilled), or the blurry video call by the Indian foodstall worker to his father to catch the moment when Messi lifted the Cup, or the tears of an Arab child wearing an Argentine gutra (head scarf), tell us how this World Cup has made Messi one of their own, the one true global icon of this age where heroes are difficult to find.
He has been the superstar of this tournament, dragging and daring a team of good but not exceptional individuals to be better than the sum of its parts. The spirit of the collective has been Argentina’s biggest strength on its way to becoming the world champion after 36 years. “We are fighters, and we were very strong despite the goals France scored. It was similar to the match against the Netherlands as we wanted to win and kept fighting,” coach Lionel Scaloni said after winning the biggest game of his life.
This win was also for the Argentine people who are facing one of the longest extended economic turmoils in their nation’s history. “These players play for the Argentine people; this is the greatest pride to play for Argentina and they broke their backs as they understood what they had to do on the pitch. Today we are World Cup champions,” said the other Lionel, who, like his more famous namesake, is living a dream, taking the coveted trophy back to their country.
Here, in the final, Messi and his Argentina refused to submit even as a young Kylian Mbappe threatened to rewrite the preordained script by scoring a hat-trick and leaving his mark as the World Cup’s top-scorer.
“The match was insane,” said an emotional Scaloni. “I told the players in critical moments that we had to be optimistic. France had two chances and equalised before full time, and we knew that if we played our game, we would have our chances. And before the penalties, Emiliano [Martinez] is a positive guy and he told his team that he was going to make some saves. And we had so many takers and that shows the confidence in the team.”
The goalkeeper had also been brave in the shootout against the Netherlands, and, in the final, his antics — he threw the ball away, forcing Aurelien Tchouameni to fetch it ahead of the third penalty — ensured France could only score two as Argentina converted its first four.
That fighting spirit surged through the veins of every Argentine player and Messi, as well, was no longer in his zen bubble but a brawler for the cause of his team. He was ready to snarl and bite and hook the odd elbow as all was fair in this fight. Every human emotion could be seen through him — the euphoria of a win, the joy of a goal, the despondency of conceding, the forlornness when things didn’t go right, and the anger when he perceived he and his team had been wronged.
He was the leader, who had asked his men to blindly put their faith in him and he was hellbent on keeping the promises he had made. “It is such a pleasure to coach him and to be his team-mate as he gives so much to his team. Everything he transmits to his team-mates is something unparalleled that I have never seen before,” coach Scaloni said about his captain.
The out-of-character reactions by Messi during and after the quarterfinals victory over a tough-spirited Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands and his animated interactions with referees have led to an agreement among most football critics that the World Cup saw the “Maradona-sation” of Messi, where winning at all costs often led to anarchy. But Messi is no Diego and perhaps never wanted to be. Unlike Diego, Messi works best in a system well-defined to accentuate his qualities. “If you see the development of our journey, you’ll realise we played differently back in 2019, after, or even during, some games from the Copa America in 2019. So, we had to learn which ones were the players he [Messi] felt comfortable with on the pitch, because at the end of the day, he plays with the ball, and needs to feel comfortable. And it was equally important that the rest of the players felt comfortable with him, so we had a complete combination,” Scaloni, after the final victory, emphasised the point of finding the right players and the right system for Messi.
Legendary Argentinian football journalist Marcela Mora y Araujo, who has watched both Messi and Maradona from close quarters wrote beautifully about how this World Cup was not about Messi becoming Maradona, but Messi becoming Messi. “My view is that Messi is very much not becoming Maradona; what we are seeing is Messi becoming himself. More and more comfortable in his own skin, more assertive in his own unique personality, more comfortable in his own style of leadership,” she wrote in the Guardian ahead of the final. “I first met him [Messi] in 2009, a one-to-one interview for a UNICEF book about players and their childhoods. Messi was polite, reserved, and only livened up after a number of questions. Noticeably, when talking about what a sore loser he is — he hates losing at everything, card games, dice. Anything. Back then he told me that for a long time when he was a young boy he didn’t realise how good he was at football, because he secretly suspected his older brothers and their mates purposely let him win — to avoid his tantrums if he lost.”
In the present national setup most of his team-mates grew up idolising him, whereas the support staff of Scaloni, his deputies Pablo Aimar (Messi’s hero), Roberto Ayala, Walter Samuel were his early team-mates, and Messi had at last found that harmony which was always missing when he played for Argentina.
Messi had already indicated the World Cup final would be his last game in the global event, but with the burden of the one missing trophy lifted in the fifth attempt, he promised to entertain his fans for at least a few more games (in national colours). “Obviously, I wanted to complete my career with this — I can’t ask for more,” he said. “Finishing my career this way is impressive. After this, what else? I have a Copa America, a World Cup. I love football, what I do. I enjoy being part of the national team, the group. I want to enjoy a couple more matches as a world champion.”
Scaloni, who had convinced a disillusioned Messi to commit again to the national cause after the 2018 World Cup disappointment, hopes his persuasion skills will prolong the stay of the now-happy legend. “We need to save him a spot for the [next] World Cup. If he wants to keep playing, he will be with us. He is entitled to decide what he wants to do with his career,” he said.
But, for now, with the World Cup trophy tightly cradled against his chest, Messi, at last, had no more shadows to chase.
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