FIFA World Cup 2022 Final: Between retirements, Lionel Messi solves the Argentina puzzle

It has been six years, five months and 17 days since June 26, 2016 and yet, for those who have followed the Argentina men’s football team and its beloved captain Lionel Messi, it may as well have been centuries since that date. At the same time, they may also say that the memories of what unfolded on that day remains so fresh that it could have occurred just yesterday.

“For me, the national team is over,” Messi had said on that day quite suddenly and unexpectedly after Argentina lost to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final on penalties. “I was thinking in the locker room that this is it. I am no longer going to play for the national team. Like what I had just said, this is my fourth final, it is not for me. Unfortunately, I have come this far (to the final). It is what I wanted more than anything, but it wasn’t meant to be. I think this is it,” he told Argentinian TV network TyC Sports, his face a picture of a man resigned to the fact that his legacy would be that of a great player who never quite matched the heights he reached in club football in his international career.

Becoming a legend at Barcelona football club is no mean feat. By 2016, Messi, then 29, had not just achieved that, but even put some distance between him and the plethora of great players who made history with the Catalan giants. Spain great Cesar, who played for Barcelona till 1955, had been the club’s all-time highest goal-scorer for nearly six decades before Messi surpassed him in March 2012. Cesar was 34 when he had left Barcelona as their record scorer; Messi was 24 when he broke the record.

The Barcelona faithful had no qualms in calling Messi the best they have ever had but that wasn’t the case with Argentina. Despite the fact Messi’s goal-scoring prowess was just as ridiculous at the international level at the time, most from the country refused to consider him as the iconic Diego Maradona’s equal. Why this was the case is one of two great debates involving Messi that has dominated his illustrious career, the other being the seemingly never-ending comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo. This debate could be heard around dinner tables, in sports bars and television studios alike around the world. Most of the time, it always seemed to end with the conclusion that Messi is a “Barcelona player” and will never really win anything with Argentina because the latter are not as well-oiled a machine as the Spanish giants. Maradona, on the other hand, almost single-handedly led Argentina to the title in 1986 and almost did it again in 1990.

All of those discussions seemed to come to a crescendo in the minutes immediately after Argentina’s loss to Chile on June 26, 2016 – their third failure to win a major final in as many years. Then, they came to a grinding halt when the cameras cut to a visibly crestfallen Messi saying that he doesn’t want to play for Argentina anymore.

Cut to December 15, 2022, and we find that Messi has announced an international retirement once again. And yet, the circumstances could not be more different. His love story with Barcelona came to an end and his stay at Paris St. Germain, regardless of his form, always seems to come with the asterisk of playing for a club that arguably has more resources than all of the other teams in the league put together. In a way, Messi’s club career has been a rocky ride in the last three years.

The story could not be more different with Argentina though. He finally won a major international trophy in the form of the 2021 Copa America and he is playing like he is 24 all over again in Qatar, leading Argentina to the final. While the seemingly inverse relationship between his club and international careers is rather amusing, it does look like Messi had exorcised most of the demons that haunted him for much of his international career going into the ongoing FIFA World Cup. With an international title finally in his bag, he was in inspired form as Argentina went on a 36-match unbeaten streak going into this World Cup.

Even after that streak came to an end with a stunning loss to Saudi Arabia that made headlines around the world in the tournament opener, it was Messi that pulled them out of the quagmire. Argentina were average at best against an equally underwhelming Mexican side in their next match and it was a moment of genius from Messi, the kind that left Barcelona fans with their tongues wagging for so many years, that gave Argentina the lead. Over the course of the tournament, the 35-year-old kept sprinkling some crucial magic dust on Argentina’s matches, whether by scoring penalties amidst bone-crushing pressure or with passes that never seemed to be possible before he made them and put the goal on a platter for a teammate.

A crescendo of noises was reached on June 26, 2016 until a crestfallen Messi announced his retirement. There seems to be another in sight at the moment but it couldn’t be more different than the last one. This one has Messi smiling benignly, and rather awkwardly one might argue, as an Argentinian reporter decided to ditch the questions and tell him that he has touched every person in their country regardless of whether he won the World Cup or not after his masterful performance in the semi-final against Croatia.

“I just want to tell you that no matter the results, there’s something that no one can take from you, and it’s the fact you resonated with Argentinians, every single one. I’m being serious. There’s no kid who doesn’t have your team flannel, no matter if it’s a fake, real or a made-up one. Truly, you made your mark in everyone’s life. And that, to me, is beyond winning any World Cup. No one can take that from you and this is my gratitude, for the amount of happiness you bring to a lot of people,” she said.

It has visuals of a sea of Argentina fans bowing down while belting out “Messi! Messi!” chants as the No.10 walks up to take a corner at their end. It has the Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni making it clear that he rates Messi higher than Pele, Maradona and Ronaldo and that the captain of his side has nothing left to prove. “Every time we see him play, he makes us and the players feel something special. We feel lucky and privileged to have him wear our shirt,” he said.

Amidst all this, was another retirement announcement. This time, though, Messi was all smiles, as were probably the Argentine fans who received the news while still being delirious from what he did to the Croatian defence in the semi-final. “I feel very happy to be able to achieve this, to finish my World Cup journey by playing my last game in a final. It’s many years for the next one and I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. And to finish like this, it’s the best,” Messi told Argentine media outlet Diario Deportivo Ole. After years of doubts over whether fans will get to truly see the best of Messi in the sky blue and white, fans have probably got to see everything he has in this tournament, including a rare display of white-hot anger in the heated quarter-final against the Netherlands. The World Cup win would certainly be the cherry on top but as far as swansongs go, this has already been as perfect as it gets for Messi.