Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi. From the backpages of newspapers to the cover images of web stories and feature articles and all over the explore section of Instagram, Lionel Messi is everywhere. And quite rightfully so.
After all, Qatar 2022 ended up providing that fairytale narrative, that crowning moment that almost the entire world of football willed him on to. Brazil’s Neymar, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, the Big Four of Tennis, Cricket’s Sachin Tendulkar, Basketball’s LeBron James and even the man who had once denied him the World Cup in heartbreaking fashion, Mario Gotze, all lent their voices and words to celebrate Messi and his triumphant achievement.
The Last Dance had just taken place after a final for the ages. Lionel Messi had completed football.
And yet, had it not been for Emiliano ‘Dibu’ Martinez’s massive, outstretched leg to deny Randal Kolo Muani, through on goal, in the third minute of added time after extra time in the World Cup final, it would’ve been game, set, and match on that fever dream. The scoreline would’ve ended 4-3 in favour of France with no time for an equaliser.
Before taking to the field in the second half against Croatia in the semi-final, the cameras caught Martinez saying ‘They’d have to kill me (in order) to score against me.” He ended that night with a clean sheet. On Sunday, in the biggest game of his life, he had to pick the ball thrice from the back of the net after coming up against an inspired history-making Kylian Mbappe.
When the match went to a penalty shootout, however, Martinez went into the zone where he thrives the best. Trash talking, psychological mind games, making the kick-taker wait, there is no line that Emi Martinez wouldn’t cross to get inside his opponent’s head to have the last laugh.
It was the same script in the shootout in the final as well where he made himself so big, so larger than life, that Les Bleus crumbled under the pressure.
He got a fingertip or two to Mbappe’s third penalty of the night but the sheer power behind it drove it home. Martinez then dived the right way to stop Kinglsey Coman’s shot before jumping and punching the air a thrice in celebration. He then got to young Aurelien Tchouameni’s mind by making him fetch the ball after a long walk and it resulted in him completely missing the frame of goal. And off he went, shaking and dancing to the songs of the thousands of Argentine supporters behind him.
It was no surprise then that he won the Golden Glove award- if you save a 1v1 in the 123rd minute of the World Cup final and prove decisive in the resulting penalty shootout, there's no one else who could have earned it more.
Rodrigo de Paul, taunted on social media as ‘Messi’s bodyguard’, delivered yet another masterclass on the big stage. Far from the deck of cards that collapsed against Saudi Arabia, he grew in stature throughout the competition. De Paul was the difference maker in the final in Maracana against Brazil last year, he made things tick in Doha on Sunday night as well.
Argentina had quietly saved Angel Di Maria for the final after the group stages and he repaid that faith and then some more. ‘Fideo’ was not only electric down that left flank, but he went on to torment the lives of Ousmane Dembele and Jules Kounde.
In the final, he earned the first penalty that Messi converted to make it 1-0 and scored the cushion goal after a spectacular build-up that had nearly won the final for Argentina. A man made for the big occasions, Di Maria has now scored in the final of the Olympics, the Copa America, the Finalissima and the biggest of them all, the FIFA World Cup.
Spare a thought also for the trio of Alexis Mac Allister (23), and Julian Alvarez (22), and Enzo Fernandez (21). Before the World Cup kicked off, they collectively had 23 international caps to their name and while Alvarez has been making a name for himself as the understudy to one Erling Haaland in Manchester City, Fernandez and Mac Allister had escaped the spotlight.
And yet, after that disastrous defeat to Saudi Arabia to begin the campaign as well as a scraping through against Mexico, fresh legs and changes were desperately needed. Manager Lionel Scaloni slotted them from the fringes of the squad straight into the starting XI.
Playing in their very first World Cup, all three youngsters sparked with composure and clarity. Fernandez went on to win the Best Young Player of the Tournament and has become one of the most sought after talents in the world. Mac Allister, whose father played with Diego Maradona, filled the shoes of the injured Giovani Lo Celso and broke lines for fun with passes and dribbles. Alvarez became the reliable number 9 that Messi so desperately needed and finished his very first World Cup with four goals, including a screamer in the semi-final against Croatia. And when he was not scoring goals, he was bursting his lungs out pressing, making runs to create spaces, and stretching the defence on the wings.
Nicolas Otamendi, one of the old guards besides Messi and Di Maria, may have the reputation of losing his head and the penalty he gave away in the final certainly didn’t help. That odd moment aside, ‘El General’ was one of the standout centre-backs of the entire World Cup.
Of course, he didn’t marshall the backline alone. Fierce, combative, and resolute, Cristian Romero did not let a single challenge faze him in the knockout rounds of the tournament. Not Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay, not Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic, not even Kylian Mbappe for most of the final. With him in the starting XI, Argentina have only lost on one occasion since his debut in 2021: the World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia.
Crucial contributions also came from full-backs Nahuel Molina and Gonzalo Montiel in the shape of the opening goal against the Netherlands and the penalty that confirmed Argentina’s third World Cup, left-back Marcos Acuna, and even with Leandro Paredes and Lisandro Martinez coming off the bench and putting their bodies on the line.
Leading up to the World Cup, the common sentiment in the Argentina national camp had been that most of the players wanted to win the trophy for their nation and their captain more than themselves.
So when the final penalty found its way in at the end of a truly breath-taking night at the Lusail Stadium, all of them rushed to hug Messi at the centre of the pitch and dropped to their knees to form a huddle around him. Comfortable with the knowledge that they were now champions of the world. Contented, having fulfilled their roles to utmost perfection.
When stories of Lionel Messi and his iconic generation-defining World Cup conquest are told decades down the line, their names will be mentioned in the same breath as those of Jorge Valdano, Daniel Pasarella, and Jorge Burruchaga who once helped Diego Maradona attain near-religious stature in Mexico 36 years ago.