Those who have had the happiness of sharing the intimacy of day to day with Lionel MessiThey assure that he is a unique and unrepeatable human being on a soccer field. What’s more, most warn, noting an imminent smile, that being human, when he plays, can be questioned. Seventeen years in Spanish Barcelona strengthened this theory, although every time the azulgrana was changed to the albiceleste, reverence mutated into boredom. Four World Cups later with the Argentine national teamwith a heartbreaking final in Brazil 2014 and monumental frustration against Mbappé’s France in Russia 2018, the most transcendental footballer of the last two decades returns to the battle for the long-awaited World Cup, one where he is already the champion in the prelude of the world if the tournament were decided by polls, merits or prayers.
Jorge Valdano once said that the best footballer in the world is Lionel Messi and the second best is an injured Messi. Against the fierce Arabia of Saleh Al Shehri and Salem Al Dasari, the two teammates of André Carrillo who disguised themselves as the Argentine ten to consummate an unexpected victory with two superb goals, the Rosario must have disappointed not only Valdano, but also everyone a world of fervent fans of the Maradonian blush.
Accustomed to not losing to Scaloni for more than three years, say those who like to portray and venerate Messi, who arrived in Qatar with the maximum forecasts to play at 250%: more rested, injury-free and more loved than ever in Paris -where it took him a while to adapt- like in Argentina, where he finally reached the label of absolute hero after starring in the epic of winning the Copa América against Neymar’s Brazil and in the Maracana itself.
At the age of 35, Messi had achieved everything, including staying current in the elite of world soccer, well above his antagonist for years, Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel, accustomed to the art of doing the impossible on a daily basis, surprising on a macro level, for this World Cup, possibly his last World Cup, left a micro miracle in the preview with Arabia: that my 8-year-old son went to bed early (which he did not do from the age of 5) to get up at dawn with a ball in hand, blanket, court and lemonade; accompany me to see on television that colossal being that I had told him so much about a month before while we were filling the album with figurines.
A miracle proceeded from a disappointment.
Dad, didn’t Messi play well? Darío tells me half surprised and half sleepy in the last minutes of the game. This is football, I thought. But faced with the question’s check, I finally opted for a more fair play: ‘That’s the beauty of football, that the favorite doesn’t always beat the one with the least chance of winning.’
But who are we kidding! Half the planet has anxiously awaited this World Cup with the sole objective of seeing Lionel Messi win his first World Cup and thus, finally, consecrate himself as the divinity that he is still not allowed to be because in front of him always he had -and will have- the portrait of Diego Armando Maradona, another figure of a superlative nature who did everything right with the albiceleste: the ‘Hand of God’, the best goal in the World Cups, the ‘cosmic kite’, revenge against the English and take a World Cup in their hands in Mexico 86. Nothing less.
Maradona conquered the world in his second cup, in his prime, at the age of 25. Messi is obliged to try it in his fifth and last chance at 35, even with that magic that has accompanied him since his professional debut in 2004, but more than ever dependent -and a lot- on the collective performance. And it is that, although it is difficult to understand it, in the twilight of his career a great assistance is more likely than a Maradona play like the ones we were used to in the best physical version of him until a few years ago. And it is that age is a rival that even Messi is terrified of.
In other words, the magic now depends on another Lionel, on Scaloni.
Wrapping him better implies finding the right pieces with which Messi finds space for the goal pass against a complicated Mexico. Possibly with Lautaro Martínez again as the head of attack and with Di María and Papu opening the pitch on the wings. Shielding Messi, sheltering him correctly, perhaps does not imply a change of names, but of mentality. The debut, with the pressure of winning the World Cup exerting on the team from second zero, may have been the true rival. Perhaps against Mexico the demand for success is even greater because unlike the first game, this Saturday there is no margin for error. It will be win or win.
Happily, unlike the other thirty-one teams, Scaloni’s men have Messi by their side, absolute evidence that the improbable can be done. For now, accustomed to the impossible, the ‘Flea’ faces his last chance to win a World Cup with a first false step: the shock of defeat against a fierce Arabia and the pressure of being the sentimental champion of half the planet.
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