When you are as luminous a star as Lionel Messi, everybody seeks to bask in your glow. Even, it seems, the Emir of Qatar, who chose the moment of Messi’s investiture as a World Cup winner to envelop him in a black bisht, a traditional cloak worn in Arab societies for thousands of years. A kind interpretation is that his hosts were presenting him as somehow eternal, tying him to the trappings of royalty. Or perhaps they just wanted to leave their own indelible imprimatur on this headiest of sporting nights.
Messi as the match winner in the greatest World Cup final: it was the type of ending that, for Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family, not even $300 billion could buy. For it conferred immortality on a tournament that, for 12 years, had looked fated to be recalled for everything but sport. Messi, in timeless fashion, dictated otherwise, grasping the most important match of his life by the throat and ensuring that here, amid the sparks, politics and unrelenting noise of his adoring Argentinian fans, his career would end complete.
It is, arguably, the most stirring act of resolution sport has ever seen.
The will for Messi to win the World Cup had become almost a universal yearning, resisted only by Cristiano Ronaldo and his apologists. But the strength of public feeling seldom guarantees that the desired conclusion will come to pass. The late Diego Maradona, in whose Buenos Aires back garden Argentina’s triumph was greeted with particular fervour, had the self-destructive impulses that led him off the rails in disgrace. Messi, though, is made of more resilient material. Where Maradona was his own worst enemy, his heir brings only an exquisite sense of control.
The abiding impression of the evening was that Messi simply would not let this chance pass him by. You felt it in the smoothly dispatched penalty with which he set this wonderful final alight, and in the snatched extra-time goal that seemed sure, without Kylian Mbappe, to be the decisive strike. It was an unusually frantic intervention by Messi’s standards, but he still needed the presence of mind to pull the trigger. As he peeled away in jubilation, you sensed the stars aligning.
As Gonzalo Montiel fired the winning spot kick beyond Hugo Lloris, Messi dropped to his knees in gratitude, his teammates surrounding him and cradling his head like the nation’s prodigal son. This Messi mission had been a collective enterprise, with Argentina’s players appearing as relieved that they had delivered for him as for themselves. It is the most rarefied of realms that he inhabits, as a living deity of the game. As such, he merits exceptional treatment, whether through his fans bowing before him in prayer or the most powerful man in Qatar trussing him up in a bisht.
Somehow, Messi did not dissolve in tears. It was as if, in common with the 89,000 inside the stadium, he was too emotionally scrambled to compute what was happening. There were too many sensations to process, too many glad-handers to acknowledge. Across this confounding epic of a match, he had gone from joy to desolation and back again, twice. Only when Messi is permitted a few seconds alone with his winner’s medal can he absorb the full magnitude of what he has achieved.
The magnificence of Messi is defined less by what he does with the ball at his feet than by how he makes people feel. This was true even before the final, when one Argentinian journalist told him the result was insignificant, given all the millions of children he had inspired. He nodded appreciatively, but in a way that suggested he did not quite agree.
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