LUSAIL, Qatar -- Kylian Mbappe had converted France's first penalty in the shootout, the fourth time he'd beaten Argentina keeper Emi Martinez in the World Cup final, following his earlier hat-trick. And so Lionel Messi walked up to take Argentina's opening penalty.
Conventional wisdom suggests you generally want your best penalty takers to go last or, at least, when facing elimination. But there was nothing conventional or wise about this final or, come to think of it, this World Cup.
Messi stood for a moment, hands on hips, took his run-up, sent France keeper Hugo Lloris one way and the ball the other way. It was 1-1, and it was now out of his hands. And maybe, there was something hugely liberating to that. There was nothing further he could do to help Argentina win this World Cup and, in the eyes of some, cement his G.O.A.T. candidacy with the biggest prize in team sports. Nothing except cheerlead and be a supportive captain, which he did, greeting each Argentina penalty taker with a hug and a high-five.
Argentina would become champions a few minutes later, when Gonzalo Montiel converted his penalty kick to make it 4-2 and give them an unassailable lead. But it was that moment earlier, after Messi's spot-kick that the realization must have hit him: "I can't do any more." In some ways, it speaks to what had, until one Sunday night in Qatar (a day we'll have to explain to our grandchildren), had dogged him in his record-breaking career: his failure to win a World Cup.
In a team game, it's an arbitrary measurement, and in this sport, it's especially silly. You only get four or five cracks at it, if you're lucky; you're often too young for your first opportunity and too old for your last. There's no guarantee you'll be fit when the moment rolls around, and unlike in club football, you can't control your supporting cast because you can't pick your nationality. Alfredo Di Stefano never won a World Cup. Nor did Johan Cruyff. Nor has Cristiano Ronaldo.
This is not what determines his status among the G.O.A.T. group or even as the G.O.A.T. outright. But it definitively banishes an undeserved cloud that had been hanging over him for many years.
Messi's debut for Argentina lasted all of two minutes, and to some, it seemed like an omen. It was the summer of 2005, he was an 18-year-old prodigy-to-be at Barcelona, he came on after 63 minutes and was given his marching orders for a supposed stray elbow 120 seconds later.
Even as his career took off -- even as the club silverware and Ballons d'Or piled up, even as he demolished Argentine national team records for goals scored (which he did in 2016) and appearances (in the summer of 2021) -- and even as many had him as the game's No. 1 (and the rest, the Ronaldo fans, had him as No. 1A) there was that lingering doubt. When would he deliver with Argentina?
Indeed, there were some back home who questioned just how badly he wanted it with his country. After all, he'd left the country aged 13 and moved to Barcelona. Then, in 2016, shortly after the Copa America Centenario, he announced he was retiring from the national side, citing differences with the federation. The reaction was near-unanimous and a country-wide campaign for his return only underscored the absurdity of questioning his loyalty. He was back in time for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
And yet, to that point, the Messi Era scoreboard amounted to a big goose egg for Argentina: four Copas America and three World Cups, four runner-up medals and bucket-loads of regrets and might-have-been moments.
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Messi watchers place the turning point at the 2019 Copa America. Argentina lost in the semifinal to host Brazil, and after the game, Messi was decidedly un-Messi-like. He railed against the referee and showed an obvious, outward edge that few had seen before. He had taken over the captaincy a few years earlier, but this was a different Messi: This was angry Messi, snarly Messi, street Messi. (This was the Messi who would materialize after the game against the Dutch, hissing at Wout Weghorst: "What are you looking at, Bobo?")
At the same time, his relationship with Barcelona, where he had served for nearly two decades, was getting strained following the signing of Antoine Griezmann. To many it felt like he was ready to double down on Argentina like never before. A year later, in 2020, he lodged the now-infamous "burofax" in an attempt to force a move away. He got his wish in 2021, moving to Paris Saint-Germain as a free agent, and in that same year, he finally got the Argentina silverware curse off his back, leading his country to the 2021 Copa America.
In some ways, everything that followed that summer was a prelude to this night in Doha. Argentina was coached by Lionel Scaloni, a former teammate who, above all, is a man-manager who kept the sort of psychodrama and media circuses -- staples of previous regimes, like that of Jorge Sampaoli in 2018 and Diego Maradona in 2010 -- away from his players. Under Scaloni, Argentina went on a long unbeaten run and developed a system that exorcised its dependence on Messi. He was a value add and often decisive element, but not the whole game plan. Meanwhile, playing at PSG alongside stars like Mbappe and Neymar diluted the spotlight, while the French league offered a bit of a respite from the weekly grind of LaLiga.
It's easy, after the fact, to see how everything was pointing in one direction: for Messi to finally win the big one. But even that means forgetting what he did to get Argentina here and get them over the line.
Messi broke the ice against Mexico, sending Argentina on their way to a crucial victory after they had lost their opener to Saudi Arabia. He scored in each of the knockout rounds leading to the final, and against the French, he converted a penalty to make it 1-0, cued the counterattack that made it 2-0 and was there to tuck in what would have been the winner in extra-time, if not for the Montiel forearm that led to Mbappe's penalty equalizer.
There's an inescapable symbolic value to the triumph coming against Mbappe, on the day the Frenchman scored a hat-trick in the final. It was the soon-to-be-past against the inevitable future for control of the present. And for now, the present still belongs to Messi.
Let's get one thing clear: Messi didn't need that golden cup to secure his seat at the G.O.A.T. table. He wanted it to give back to his teammates and to his nation, after 22 years abroad (and counting). Not because he owes them, but because he loves them. Still, to some winning his first World Cup will move the needle and place Messi at the head of that G.O.A.T. table, and that's fine. We each have our own criteria.
For me, it's not an argument you're going to win with numbers -- not when you're comparing apples and aardvarks.
Messi won four Champions League titles? Great: Pele didn't get to play in the Champions League (or European Cup, as it was called then) because the Brazilian government passed legislation to stop him moving abroad. And Diego Maradona played in an era when you had to win the league to be in it, not just finish in the top four.
For most of his career, Pele didn't have the benefit of a supporting cast made up of the world's best players, regardless of provenance. Neither did Maradona, who played at a time when clubs were limited to three foreign players. Messi plays in a hugely polarized era, where the "superclubs" (like Barcelona and PSG) have 10, 20 and sometimes 40 times the budget of most of their opponents. The other two did not.
There's also a risk in muddling achievement with greatness, as you can only achieve what is of your era. Winning a World Cup is an achievement, but it does not automatically bestow greatness.
Dale Johnson recaps the refereeing decisions during Argentina's win vs. France in the World Cup final.
Nor can you take the easy way out by citing today's athletes as naturally better because of better pitches, better sports science, better genes, better training techniques, whatever. It may be true that if you teleport Sir Bobby Charlton from 1968 to the present day, Harry Kane might be well ahead of him? But so what? Does it mean Bobby Charlton is a dud? Not in my book.
To some, greatness is such an abstraction that it transcends the pitch. Pele and Maradona, each in their own way, had a charisma, a presence and a social significance that Messi, probably, does not. Not because he's any less of a footballer, but simply because he has a different personality, and you often can't separate the two. If Muhammad Ali had remained Cassius Clay, had never taken a stand on social issues and had limited himself to dull cliches in interviews, would he still be "the Greatest?" (I appreciate he anointed himself that, but you get the point.)
Messi has ticked a number of boxes on Sunday night by dint of winning the World Cup, though it's not a logic I understand. Me? I'm just happy to see greatness rewarded. That's enough for me. And, no, it wasn't just greatness with the ball at his feet.
Reflecting back on this tournament, Argentina's coach Scaloni spoke often about trust, about placing your fate in the hands of your teammates, about believing in them. That's what Messi has done in this tournament, and it was driven home most emphatically during that long walk back to the center circle after he slotted his penalty home in the shootout.
Messi placed his trust in his teammates. And they did not let him down. Just as he did not let them down.