DOHA, Qatar -- We have always known that Lionel Messi is different, but the 2022 World Cup is seeing a different Messi.
The talismanic, ethereal status that Messi possesses in the hearts and minds of Argentines everywhere was once so great a burden that he briefly retired from international football in 2016 after losing his fourth major international final in nine years, comprising three Copa Americas and one World Cup. The weight of expectation was too much, the shadow of Diego Maradona too dark a place for him to exist.
Yet in Qatar, the 35-year-old is playing with that mixture of purpose and freedom reminiscent of his best form which long ago cemented his status as one of the all-time greats.
Argentina now stand on the brink of a first World Cup triumph in 36 years. Victory in Sunday's final over France would accentuate the debate over who is the best player of all time even further in his favour. There are myriad reasons for the change in Messi's approach, but two more recent developments stand out.
- World Cup 2022: News and features | Schedule | Bracket
"Winning the Copa America in Brazil last year was a big relief for Messi, his first major trophy with the national team," Messi's former Argentina teammate Pablo Zabaleta told ESPN. "It took a lot of pressure off him and after that he has been playing some great football with Argentina -- 36 games unbeaten [before the shock group-stage defeat to Saudi Arabia] and a World Cup final now."
That accounts for Messi's freedom. The accompanying (and uncharacteristic) aggression in evidence -- most obviously in a stormy quarterfinal penalty shootout success over Netherlands where there were a World Cup-record 18 yellow cards and Messi celebrated in front of and then confronted opposition coach Louis van Gaal for his prematch comments afterwards -- perhaps first stems from Argentina's opening 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
"I have seen Messi showing his leadership qualities after the shock defeat against Saudi Arabia, playing with huge personality and a bit of anger and carrying the Argentina team," Zabaleta added. "He knows this is probably his last chance to win a World Cup. This is something positive and I love to see it. The rest of the players fight for the Argentina shirt but also for Messi."
Argentina were beaten by France in the round of 16 four years ago, but Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps is acutely aware of the tactical adaptations in Messi's game since that game in Kazan, Russia.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
"He actually played as a centre-forward against us, which caught us by surprise four years ago," Deschamps said after France's semifinal win over Morocco. "Whereas now he is in tandem, just in behind the centre-forward, he is picking up the ball a lot and he is running with it and looking in great form."
Messi's form has never looked better than when ghosting past Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol -- one of the stars of the tournament so far -- to set up Argentina's third goal. Picking the ball up on the touchline, he beat Gvardiol before checking back and pausing, only to drop a shoulder, spin and beat the 20-year-old again, cutting the ball back for Julian Alvarez to sidefoot home his second goal of the game.
"He stopped because he knows he is not as fast as he used to be in longer distances, but he can still make a difference in shorter distances," Messi's former teammate and close friend Sergio Aguero told ESPN. "Had he continued, the defender would have blocked him and the play would have been over. He always does that, he is impeccable. He looks like he is 25 years old."
Sam Marsden explains why he thinks Lionel Messi will finally get his hands on the World Cup trophy after Argentina eased into the final.
Those magical moments are now aligned with a steely resolve and an acute understanding of how he can provide the most effective leadership. Sometimes this comes in small moments. Messi is not a shouter.
"Messi doesn't speak a lot, just the essentials," Aguero said. "He is not talking throughout the whole game, but he comes close to you, more or less within a distance where you can hear him, and he tells you: 'When you get [the ball] be quicker' or 'If you see me, give me the ball ...' He keeps telling you how to find him. If he's annoyed, he doesn't speak."
That is not to say he can't deliver inspirational speeches. "He is a true leader for the young players and gives some inspirational prematch speeches," Zabaleta added. "When he talks, everyone listens."
Before the 2021 Copa America final, Messi addressed the players in the dressing room as they stood on the brink of history once more. "We had a goal guys," he said. "We had a goal and we are a little step away from it. A little step. And you know what is best for all of us? That it depends on us. It depends on us to win the cup. So because of that we are going to go out, we are going to lift the cup and take it to Argentina to enjoy with our families, our friends, with the people who always supported Argentina."
There have been fears for some time that Messi is not fully fit. He has often been seen holding his left hamstring in matches, including against Croatia. But after speaking with him in the dressing room, Aguero said "he feels no pain at all" -- a huge relief to all given the magnitude of the achievement within Argentina's grasp on Sunday.
Messi has surely already achieved sporting immortality. Any supporter attending a game involving him should really receive an almanac with their ticket these days, such is the sheer volume of records he is amassing.
To note just a few of the latest entries, he will become the male player with the most World Cup appearances when he plays his 26th game this weekend. He is already Argentina's top male goal scorer (11) and is the oldest man to score five goals in a single World Cup in history. Remarkably, he leads the Golden Boot race from 23-year-old France star Kylian Mbappe due to his higher number of assists. Incidentally, he is also the first male player ever to score and assist in three different games at the same World Cup since 1966.
There are some, though, who will hold failure on Sunday against him, as if it dulls the shine on the most glittering of careers. Mario Kempes, who won the World Cup with Argentina in 1978, is not one of them.
"Win or lose, they are the pride of Argentina," Kempes told ESPN. "They have played well, they have been at the level of a World Cup, reaching the final, which is not easy, and improving as the tournament has advanced.
"Of course, it will be much better if they win it now, but if not, I think what the coach and the players done represents an important step forward, whether that is to win the final on Sunday or winning [the World Cup] again as soon as possible."
The youngsters emerging in this exciting Argentina team, including Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez, will have more opportunities. At 35, Messi almost certainly won't and has admitted as much. But this version of Messi is angrier, hungrier and seems better placed to seize his moment than ever before.