He's still got it.

‘It’s amazing, it’s awful’: Lionel Messi’s Copa America last dance is already outrageous

Lionel Messi suffered the lowest ebb of his glittering career on United States soil.

He was 29 at the time. Had achieved everything there was to achieve multiple times over with Barcelona. Long been declared the best player in the history of football by names including Arsene Wenger.

But glory with his country was painfully missing. So often so close but just out of reach. Having suffered a third final defeat in as many years – all went beyond 90 minutes, all decided on knife-edge moments – Messi, on a New Jersey evening, decided he couldn’t take the pain any longer.

In the aftermath of Argentina’s second successive Copa America penalty shootout final defeat to Chile, he told reporters: “For me, the national team is over. I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion. It was the thing I wanted the most, but I couldn’t get it, so I think it’s over.”

Unbeknownst to Messi at the time, future team-mate Enzo Fernandez – just 15 at the time – wrote his hero a message on Facebook, beginning:

“How are we going to convince you if we are disastrous? How are we going to convince you if in our lives we have never had 1% of the pressure that you have on your shoulders?

“That you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and know that a crowd of more than 40 million people not only want you to do things perfectly, but it’s also been ridiculously imposed that they can demand them from you.”

That message summarised a degree of the public feeling in Argentina, and eventually Messi was convinced to reverse his decision and keep going. There’d be more pain to come; a shambolic 2018 World Cup showing under Jorge Sampaoli, a red card in the 2019 Copa America. Still no silverware.

Fast forward eight years from that tear-filled Copa America Centenario and Messi continues in America a changed man. Nothing left to prove. Finally, mercifully, a Copa America and a World Cup in the bag. Football completed. Nothing left to prove.

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Players that completed football with every major honour from left-to-right - Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho

READ: The 6 players that completed football with every major honour: Messi but no Ronaldo…

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“I love football, what I do. I enjoy being part of the national team, the group. I want to enjoy a couple more matches being a world champion,” Messi said in the aftermath of Argentina’s World Cup win in Qatar, when asked if he’d retire.

You can see it in the way he plays now. No pressure. No anxiety. No weight of the world on his shoulders. This wonderful period of his career is his victory lap.

In the opener of the USA 2024 Copa America, Messi did as he’s done all year and treated the American spectators to another masterclass. He’s arrived with a reputation as football’s answer to Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth or Tom Brady and is living up to it.

Forget David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this is a level of football royalty that the North American continent hasn’t been treated to since the days of Johan Cruyff, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer in the NASL.

He wasn’t actually at his very best against Canada, fluffing at least one decent chance to score, but even on a relative off night he created five big chances for his team-mates before sealing the 2-0 victory with a deft pass for Lautaro Martinez in the closing stages.

Canada boss Jesse Marsch couldn’t help but wax lyrical about the man who pulled the strings all night.

“We talked a lot about our compactness and then identifying the spaces that Messi likes to show up,” Marsch told reporters.

“We talked about not diving in because it’s hard to win tackles from him and what happens is if you eliminate yourself or if you start diving in for tackles, he’s really good slipping and moving and getting back again and making little final plays.

“This is what I say about Messi. I’ve coached against him several times and I feel like we’ve had a good match plan and we’ve executed a lot of good things. He’s so good, he’s that good that he still makes plays. The two balls he makes on the two goals I think are world-class. Amazing, it’s awful. It’s amazing.”

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Across his record-breaking performances in MLS and on the international stage, Messi – the current Ballon d’Or holder – has shown time and again that he still possesses the quality to excel in a major European league should he have wished to do so. It’s for this reason, and their recent pedigree, that Argentina are the favourites at this summer’s Copa America.

This might be the last time we see Messi light up a major international tournament.

He has the chance to lead Argentina to footballing folklore; bookending a World Cup with two continental championships, emulating the achievements of that era-defining Spain side.

But whatever happens, enjoy it. There won’t be many more nights like this and only after Messi has hung up his boots might we realise quite what a privilege it’s been.