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Lionel Messi Is Done Chasing Ghosts

Lionel Messi of Argentina poses with his Golden ball award following the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Final match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar.
Igor Kralj/Pixsell/MB Media/Getty Images

The first time I became truly aware of Lionel Andrés Messi was in April of 2007. Sure, I had seen him be a super-sub at the 2006 World Cup, but the depth of his potential only became clear to me the following spring. For scholars of the legend that is Messi, it should be clear what happened then: His goal against Getafe in the Copa Del Rey semifinal was both a wondrous solo performance on its own, and eerily similar to Diego Maradona's goal in the 1986 World Cup against England. In the moment, it was thrilling, but the effect it had on Messi's legacy began almost immediately. His goal held up a mirror to Maradona's, and the man already being called the heir of Diego had to fight that comparison for all of his career.

It's not clear how much the Maradona comparisons actually played into Messi's life and career, but for the sport of soccer, they were always there, hiding under the surface. The ghosts of 1986 were there to stay until Messi did the same thing Maradona did in Mexico that summer: Win a World Cup, and win it with style and individual dominance. That Getafe goal was great, but the argument was that Maradona did it better at a more important time. It was always that: Messi is great, but he never did what Maradona did at the World Cup, so how could he be better?

Never mind that Messi's stats are untouchable, that he has been at the pinnacle of soccer for my entire adult life with few moments of faltering, and that he has won more than anyone could have hoped for at the club level. Even when dragging Argentina to the 2014 World Cup final, the loss there only made it more evident that he was missing something when playing for Argentina, something that Maradona had but Messi did not. It would take something resembling a perfect World Cup, with the trophy at the end, to end this ultimately useless comparison.

In 2022, at the tail end of the best career anyone has ever seen in soccer, and maybe even in sports as a whole, Lionel Messi did just that. He had a perfect World Cup, he carried Argentina (not alone, never alone, but at its forefront), and he lifted both the trophy and the curse of The Next Maradona in one fell swoop. The stats were there: Seven goals, including two in the final, three assists, two penalty shootout tallies. The stat that Messi had never scored in the knockout rounds of a World Cup before this year? It died swiftly and brutally. In its place, Messi became the first player ever to score in every round of the tournament.

The moments, too, were there. After Argentina inexplicably lost to Saudi Arabia in the opening game, Messi made it his mission to make sure Argentina stayed alive. It's almost impossible to pick one moment above the rest, there were so many instances of pure magic of the kind that Messi has regularly provided over the years.

Was the best his opener against Mexico after 64 minutes of dread-inducing deadlock?

Was it this pass, the pass that only he could have made, against the Netherlands?

Was it his entire display against Croatia in the semifinals, where he was the difference and where he left poor Josko Gvardiol for dead?

Or, maybe, it was the 108th-minute goal in the final, the one that looked to end all debate forever on how important Messi is and has been for Argentina.

These are just some of the moments that will bang around my head for years to come, but perhaps the best of all came after Argentina beat France in penalties at the final. The last time Messi walked up after a World Cup final, it was in a catatonic state of sadness, a winner of the Golden Ball disgusted with the failure to win the trophy that actually mattered.

Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

This time around, though, when Messi received his Golden Ball—making him the first person to win the award for best player at this tournament twice—he paused by the World Cup trophy. Then he kissed it.

Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

It was a beautiful moment in a sea of delirium for Argentina, which last won the World Cup a year before Messi was even born, almost to the day. It was also the moment Messi needed more than any other. After the heartbreaks of 2014, and also the 2015 and 2016 Copa América finals, and the early exit in 2018, something like the 2022 World Cup is what both the legacy and the man needed. Argentina came in with one goal in mind and nothing else would have sufficed. It had to win. If last year's Copa América win served to prove that Argentina could win a final with Messi not at his best, this year's World Cup final proved that Messi could lead the country to the promised land.

There will be debates still about where Messi's performance at this World Cup ranks among the all-time greats, like Brazil's Ronaldo in 2002, or Zinedine Zidane in 1998, or, of course, Maradona's 1986 magic. There should not be debates about where Messi ranks as a player, though; he's been alone on the mountaintop for many years, and the results of this World Cup, in the twilight of his career, don't really change that body of work. Rather than changing the conversation, this win simply serves as a well-deserved exclamation point. Similarly, a loss would not have stained what came before it.

Instead, this serves to put to bed one era of Argentine soccer and begin a new one—one without the time nor space for the constant push and pull between the legacies of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. The two best players in the country's soccer history have now both won a World Cup by sheer force of talent, and will, and luck—always luck. Now it is time for Argentina to enjoy this title, and then move on from the question and conflict that has defined it for so long. The third World Cup trophy is coming home, from Qatar all the way to Buenos Aires, and it will have Messi as its caretaker for all time. The weight of the past has dissipated, and only victory remains in its place, with a smiling legend at the center of it all.

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