Lionel Messi is standing with the World Cup trophy in his hands, and that ends all the discussions – he is the greatest player ever.
It shouldn’t really have been in doubt in the first place. In purely technical terms there hasn’t been a goalscorer like him, nor has there been a playmaker like him. But he’s both rolled into one incredible whole, not only a generational talent but a player who comes along once every thousand years.
I wrote before the tournament that despite this, the World Cup would probably be necessary in order to end it once and for all, to put the Cristiano Ronaldo stans in their place, to banish the spectre of Diego Maradona, and to leave Pele long in his wake.
And he’s done it after the most thrilling World Cup final in history.
Argentina didn’t do it for him, he did it for them, producing game after game of tactical intelligence, of clutch moments and of unerring genius.
And here in the final, he proved decisive again. He opened the scoring with a nerve-jangling penalty and played a vital role in the build-up to Angel Di Maria’s goal just before half-time.
When the game was going away from Argentina in extra time after Kylian Mbappe had inspired a late comeback, Messi put Argentina back ahead.
When Mbappe replied once more, Messi settled Argentina’s nerves by dispatching his penalty in the shootout. That set the South Americans on their way to a 4-2 shootout victory.
Every touch sublime, every pass perfectly weighted, the pitch was Messi’s canvas and he painted masterpieces all over it.
It’s hard to underestimate how he turned around the negative sentiment that followed him in the middle part of the last decade to become the hero Argentina deserves. Losing three finals in a row, from the defeat to Germany in 2014 to back-to-back Copa America defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2016, caused his stock to decrease among his people.
Messi was inspired against France
He was already well below Diego Maradona in the pecking order not least for his lack of achievements with the national team but for the fact that he never spent any time playing in his homeland, leaving Rosario for Barcelona at a young age.
But he’s not Maradona. He could never replicate the political resonance that Maradona created on the way to winning the trophy in 1986. Those circumstances were unique, and after so long of trying to mimic his hero, he has emerged as his own man. He’s not Maradona, he’s Messi. And he’s now Messi, the hero.
Argentina were as good as France were poor for the first 80 minutes of this game; whether the virus that had swept the camp in the build-up had left them lethargic is hard to say. But France fought back like all great champions do, and Messi was there to pick Argentina up in their moment of need.
Di Maria, for so long Messi’s partner in crime, produced arguably his finest ever international performance, winning the penalty and netting the second, in what will probably be his last match for the national team.
Argentina’s second goal
Di Maria won a penalty and scored Argentina’s second goal
And the supporting cast who emerged during the tournament, the likes of Enzo Fernandez and Alexis McAllister, were perfect foils, doing all the running while Messi surveyed the scene and picked the passes. It’s what he does best, interjecting moments of quality on his terms, when he sees the moment, and proving decisive.
It’s been the tournament of his dreams. After the 2014 final and the crushing disappointment of 2018, he may have felt it was all over. Now at 35, it was a make-or-break tournament, simply adding to the pressure on his shoulders. And he’s overcome it all.
Messi has now overtaken Maradona
Champions Leagues, league titles, cups, Ballons d’Or, scoring records, all of them are special achievements but not a single one of them will come close to this in Messi’s eyes. The culmination of everything he has accomplished, his position on the pedestal, crystallised with a tournament that revealed not only his ability but his psychological fortitude.
Truly, there’s no one that comes close to him, not in the past, the present, and likely, in the future. Remember this moment – the moment Lionel Messi became the undisputed GOAT.