It’d be one thing if Lionel Messi weren’t producing.
If he had been a piece in this Argentina World Cup run as opposed to their leader. If he had not scored any goals beyond group play, as he’d done in every World Cup prior.
If he had been riding the bus as opposed to driving it, as Charles Barkley once said regarding Kevin Durant.
But Messi isn’t merely producing adequately—he’s been arguably the best player in this 2022 World Cup.
He did it again in the semifinals on Tuesday, engineering Argentina’s 3-0 victory over Croatia —the 2018 runner-up— ensuring their place in the finals for the first time since 2014 and just the second in Messi’s storied fútbol career.
Sure, his icebreaking golazo in the 34th minute may have been another penalty kick, which plays into the years of slander from his detractors claiming that his scoring stats are padded with penalty goals—thus, nicknaming him “Pessi.” But as we saw with Harry Kane in the quarterfinals, PK’s ain’t a given.
Messi later dazzled on the pitch, putting the nail in Croatia’s coffin, ankle-breaking his way to an assist to tournament breakout star Julian Álvarez for the third and final goal in the 69th minute.
Poetry in Motion ✍️😍
This assist by Messi was perfection 🙌 pic.twitter.com/itOy7X1WJm
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 13, 2022
“[Messi] is the best player in the world. He was dangerous and he has quality,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic remarked following his team’s loss. “It was the true Messi we expected to see.”
Heading into Sunday’s final against France —which beat Morocco on Wednesday 2-0— Messi has five goals and three assists in six matches during this year’s World Cup, and he’s currently tied with France’s Kylian Mbappe for most goals in the tournament as of this writing. Messi also leads in other categories, including shots on target (14), fouls drawn (20), expected goals (4.75), and has four Man of the Match awards.
This is his greatest World Cup performance, in a run that could’ve ended prematurely.
Long before we arrived here, Argentina was embarrassed. Stunned. Humiliated.
They lost to Saudi Arabia in their first World Cup match on November 22—not even a month ago! Saudi Arabia is currently ranked No. 51 in the world, lower than any team that qualified for the World Cup other than Ghana (61). There was talk of Saudi Arabia beating Argentina 2-1 to open group play as the biggest upset in World Cup history.
Plus Argentina’s lone goal in that match was a “Pessi” penalty kick.
But since then, they haven’t lost. Messi himself says the defeat even galvanized his squad.
“We won the other matches,” he said, “and it was very difficult because every match was a final and this has a mental load—because if we didn’t win then things would be quite complicated for us.”
“Internally, we were confident that we would make it because we know what we are capable of as a squad. We lost in the first match due to fine details but it helped us to be stronger,” he said after Tuesday’s match.
He discussed the desire to savor this opportunity for Argentina, who could add a third title to those won in 1978 and 1986.
“Let’s enjoy this moment,” he said. “It’s great to see the joy in our fans here and in Argentina. We are going to give all that we have in the final but also need to enjoy what we achieved. We feel strong before the game even after a very long last game, the previous one wasn’t easy at all. We were tired, but the group brought its energy on the pitch to face this game.”
With arguably still the best player in the world, this is Argentina’s preeminent chance at World Cup victory in the Messi Era.
Messi is Argentina’s all-time leader in World Cup caps with 25 and in World Cup goals with 11. His first appearance came in 2006, less than a year after his senior team debut and just two weeks shy of his 19th birthday.
They didn’t qualify beyond the quarterfinals in 2006 or 2010, and when they reached the finals in 2014, they were memorably outclassed by Germany in the championship, 1-0.
Then, in 2018, a noticeably weaker Argentina squad failed to get passed the Round of 16, losing to the eventual champions, France, 4-3.
No individual has ever played in six World Cups. Messi’s greatest competitive rival, the man his career has been compared to since the beginning, Cristiano Ronaldo, declared his World Cup dream dead after Portugal fell short in this year’s quarterfinals. It was also Ronaldo’s fifth World Cup. He’s 37 and will be 41 by the 2026 Cup. Messi, 35, will be 38 going on 39, but has already said this year’s World Cup will also be last.
“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,” he said.
Manager Lionel Scaonli added, “I try not to be too emotional. It is very difficult to put this into words. This is what I had always dreamed, as an Argentine.
“It is thrilling. It is emotional,” he continued. “You can win or lose, but what I can say is it is really exciting. Our people were supporting us, we could feel their support and that is something unforgettable.”
So this is it. With France beating cinderella story Morocco on Wednesday, the narrative sells itself: Messi and Argentina against Mbappe and the defending World Cup champions.
One more time for Messi to obtain the one accolade unattainable to his chief rival Ronaldo. One more time to potentially escape the vaunted shadow of the late Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to its most recent title in 1986. One more time for Messi to cap his amazying legacy with the biggest prize in the world’s most popular sports tournament.
One more time at the World Cup, and we’ll all be watching on Sunday.
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY