‘Greatest’ Messi ready for fitting World Cup farewell

DOHA: Thirty-seven club trophies, seven Ballon D’Or awards and six European Golden Boots.A Copa America title, an Olympic gold medal and a list of scoring and statistical records that may never be beaten.

Over the course of an 18-year career Lionel Messi has, with one obvious exception, won the lot. And won it again and again.

On Sunday, the 35-year-old Argentina captain has the chance to fill the last remaining hole on his CV: a World Cup winners’ medal.

For Messi’s most ardent admirers, victory over France at Doha’s Lusail Stadium will settle the debate over where he ranks in the most exclusive inner sanctum of football’s pantheon.

Messi’s career achievements to date have already earned him the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stefano and Johan Cruyff.

Does a World Cup win on Sunday nudge him ahead of that exalted company? Some think it does. Others think he already stands alone.

“I don’t have any doubt saying that: he is the best in history,” was the verdict of Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni after Messi’s virtuoso display in the 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia.

Former England captain Alan Shearer says he has long regarded Messi’s compatriot Maradona as the greatest player of all time on the basis of his 1986 World Cup triumph in Mexico.

“If Messi were to win it here, my view would change,” Shearer told the BBC.

A more nuanced view came from former Argentina striker Jorge Burruchaga, scorer of the winning goal — set up by Maradona — in the 1986 World Cup final victory over West Germany.

For Burruchaga, Messi has been the greatest player of an era where only Cristiano Ronaldo can rival his achievements. But the 60-year-old says comparisons with previous generations are futile.

“Win or lose, Messi is not more or less than Maradona,” Burruchaga told AFP. “Messi is going to be in history whatever happens.

“There are five players in the past 70 years who can be considered the best in the world — Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff, Pele, Maradona and Messi.

“Messi is in that list, whether he wins the World Cup or not. But I hope he does.”

Weight of History

While the debate over Messi’s place in history rumbles on, the man himself remains focused on what he has said will be his final appearance on the World Cup stage.

Messi’s fifth World Cup campaign has arguably been his best, thriving as the attacking fulcrum of a balanced Argentina starting line-up assembled by Scaloni.

In previous World Cup appearances, Messi has appeared weighed down by history, struggling to shoulder the hopes and dreams of millions of Argentines desperate for international glory.

For much of the past decade it seemed as if he was destined to fall short in his quest to land a major title with Argentina.

The soul-destroying extra-time defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup started a run of three consecutive major final losses.

In 2015, a star-studded Argentina side lost the Copa America final to Chile in a penalty shootout. A year later, the Albiceleste were beaten again by Chile in the final of the Copa America Centenario, Messi missing a penalty in yet another shootout defeat.

In the immediate aftermath of that loss, a shattered Messi announced his retirement from international football, in what turned out to be a short-lived exile from the national team.

He returned months later and was back to lead Argentina at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But a mostly shambolic tournament ended in the last 16 with a 4-3 defeat to eventual champions France.

The tide turned though with the appointment of Scaloni at the end of 2018.

After a third-place finish at the 2019 Copa America, Argentina finally ended their wait for a major title with victory at the 2021 tournament, beating arch-rivals Brazil in the final at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

According to Burruchaga, the 2021 Copa America title liberated Argentina’s captain.

“The weight is off his shoulders now, and we are seeing another Messi,” Burruchaga said.

With five goals already in Qatar, this is already Messi’s most successful in terms of goals scored.

Playing in bursts, he has mastered the ability to produce devastating moments of magic at key times — most recently in setting up Argentina’s third goal against Croatia on Wednesday, when he left the talented 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol for dead with a scintillating run.

“I don’t know if it’s my best World Cup or not,” Messi said after the Croatia win.

“I am very happy for finishing my journey in World Cups in a final, to play the last game in a final…. To finish this way is brilliant.”

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