There was an ethereal, dreamlike quality to the extraordinary footage of Argentina’s World Cup celebrations at the El Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires.
It almost feels like it never actually happened. As if there’s been a rip in the fabric between the fabric of reality and Lionel Messi’s consciousness.
During that moment in the dying seconds of the World Cup final, with Randal Kolo Muani suddenly played through and given a golden chance of winning it for France, you can see Messi stood alone by the centre circle.
The No.10 could do nothing but stand and watch as Emiliano Martinez stuck that foot out. The rest was history. But you imagine in those few short seconds – that felt like an eternity – Messi’s mind wandered to the Monumental and these very moments, all he’d ever dreamt of, being snatched away.
It played a scene at the end of the most epic, schlocky sports film by a director that possesses zero subtlety. And it was all the better for it.
“Obviously I wanted to end my career with this, I can’t ask for anything more,” Messi said after Argentina’s unforgettable penalty shootout victory over France at Qatar’s Lusail Stadium back in December.
“I was able to win the Copa America, the World Cup … it was given to me almost at the end. I love football, what I do. I enjoy being a part of the national team, with the group. I want to continue playing a few more games being world champion. It’s anyone’s childhood dream. I was lucky enough to have achieved everything and this is what I was missing, it’s now here.”
And here it was. The greatest player of his generation soaking in the feeling of standing atop the summit he’d given everything to reach.
Lionel Messi in tears 😢
What a moment as Argentina welcomes back its World Cup winners. pic.twitter.com/Pn9lHAw7uV
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 23, 2023
And so begins the final chapter of Messi’s career. The one where he’s done it all. The one where he no longer bears the burden of emulating El Diego. Of carrying the hopes and dreams of one of the world’s most football-obsessed nations.
He has nothing left to prove. He can just enjoy whatever’s left, knowing that ultimately nothing from here on out really matters. PSG may have exited the Champions League meekly, but ultimately whatever happens after Qatar will read as little more than a footnote in his post script.
Having been named the tournament’s best player as he captained Albiceleste to a third World Cup victory, and first since Maradona in ’86, a record-extending eighth Ballon d’Or is surely on his way regardless of whatever else happens in 2023.
The Copa America final losses of 2007, 2015 and 2016. The defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. The shambles of 2010 and 2018. Being left on the bench as an unused substitute in 2006. All of those ‘what ifs?’ exorcised.
His leadership was criticised by Maradona in 2018. Breaking down in tears and declaring his retirement in 2016, only to be talked back around. Just setbacks on the road to making it in the end.
In these final few years, we can just enjoy watching him play – and he can enjoy playing himself – without worrying about what he has or hasn’t done.
Messi himself says as much. Here’s that speech in full:
“First of all, thank you for all the love we’ve been receiving, not only since becoming world champions but also since we won the Copa America. We said for a long time that we were going to do everything for this [the World Cup]…”
“Personally, I always dreamed of this moment, to be able to celebrate with you, to be able to come to my country, to Argentina, to lift the Copa America, as we did, and, the greatest thing, the World Cup.
“I know that today is our day. It’s the day we’re celebrating becoming champions, but I don’t want to forget all the teammates I’ve had before, who also did everything possible to try to get this.
“Unfortunately, it was not given to us. We were very close to [winning] both, the Copa America and the World Cup, but they deserve the respect and acknowledgement of the Argentine people because they also gave everything for this jersey.
“To finish, I’d like to say let’s continue doing what we’re doing… no, let’s enjoy. Let’s enjoy this because we took a lot of time to win it and we don’t know how long it will take for it to happen again.
“Hopefully, it won’t be so many years, but it’s proven that it’s very difficult to get the World Cup. It depends on many things, not only a great group, a great team. Sometimes, due to small details, you can’t get it. Now, let’s enjoy the third star. Thank you all very much.”
The match itself, a friendly against Panama, almost felt like an afterthought to the party of welcoming their heroes home.
Thomas Christiansen’s tough-tackling side came to the Monumental having seemingly not been given the memo that this was Argentina’s night. They played aggressively and defended stoutly, keeping the delirious hosts – who fielded the same starting XI as in the final against France – at bay for over 75 minutes.
But the party was not going to be denied. MLS sensation Thiago Almada opened the scoring late on after Messi’s long-range free-kick cannoned back off the bar.
Who knows what the future holds for Argentina’s legendary captain in these final years of his career. But whatever comes next, expect it to look like this – Messi, weightless, gifting us yet more moments of pure joy.