Messi’s final World Cup is not just a competition. It is a cause, a rebellion | World Cup 2022

Lionel Messi has the farewell he wished for. Or the stage for it, at least. On Sunday the forward – a well-known failure at international level – will play his sixth major final with Argentina. It will be his 26th World Cup game, more than anyone else ever, another record gathered up; it will also be his last.

“To be able to finish my journey in the final makes me happy, and everything I have lived here is lovely,” Messiah said at the end of another night graced by another moment, like a gift given: something to hold when he has gone . Which is four days away now.

Oven days. One night. Everyone “knew” that this would be Messi’s last World Cup, the feeling that you might never see him again clinging to every game. He knew that too, which is part of the reason it has played out like this: call it mission, destiny or, just enjoyment. Sixteen the day, there aren’t many left. And yet, 16 years after his first, as a substitute in that 6-0 win against Serbia and Montenegro, hearing it confirmed still hit. Wait, what? The final will be your last? “Yes, it surely will be,” Messi said on Tuesday night. “It’s many years until the next [World Cup] and I don’t think I’ll make it. Finishing this way is nice.”

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So this is goodbye as far as Argentina is concerned. Still, what a way to go. It is not done yet: the greatest game of all awaits. It is colossal, of course. But even getting there felt a little like something had been won, like some realization had been reached. By Messi and about Messi. You don’t know what you have got until it’s (almost) gone. Late at the Lusail Stadium, one Argentinian television reporter down on Level 0 thing not to ask her final question. Instead, and you may have seen the clip by now, she used it to give thanks: “Whatever the result, you have made people happy,” she said. “You have made an impact on everyone’s life.”

Eventually, he made himself happy too, with more than a little help from new friends and old. At the end of the 2016 Copa América, defeated by Chile in the final, he had walked away. He had not always felt embraced, the overwhelming weight; he said he came to feel that everything was his fault. As it was put to him here: “You had to eat a lot of shit.” Yes, he conceded, but it’s different now. “For a while now I’ve been enjoying it so much, everything that’s happening to us. Being able to end all this in the final makes me happy.”

This has been the doctrine of the manager, Lionel Scaloni: the sun will rise tomorrow. Messi has embraced that message and the time he has left; it has become his message too, and there has been a sense of his teammates being invested not just in Argentina’s success but his happiness, in doing some sort of justice.

“People have understood that this is something we have to enjoy,” Messi said. “We did extraordinary things: the Copa America, the 36 games unbeaten, a World Cup final. Obviously, we all want to win it but it’s a football match and anything can happen. Hopefully, this will be different to Brazil [in 2014, when they lost against Germany]. I don’t know if this is my best World Cup, but I’ve been enjoying it since we got here.”

In Qatar he has five goals and three assists. The stellar moments here are his. The goal against Mexico and the goal against Australia, so very Messi both of them, seen a thousand times if not quite like this. The absurd assist against Croatia, instant iconography: Josko Gvardiol, the defender everyone was talking about, turned inside out and back again, hips snapped, legs tied in a cartoon knot.

Messi leads the tournament stats in goals, assists, chances created, dribbles and fouls suffered. Which still hasn’t stopped him. He has played every minute. He has been Maradonian. He has been Maradonaing, in fact. And that’s not just about the excellence; there’s the energy, the expression of commitment, identification. The sacrifice. Messi had been holding his hamstring for a long time, then he did that to Gvardiol. It is about the absolute refusal to let go: he was the one declaring that this wasn’t done after the Saudi Arabia defeat. The leadership, pulling them through. There may be no moment of skill like the semi-final, but that doesn’t compare to the release of his goal against Mexico.

Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates after the 3-0 win against Croatia.
Lionel Messi’s Argentinian teammates want to help their star man to end his World Cup career with the biggest prize. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Fifa/Getty Images

There was the flash of anger which preceded the goal against Australia. The confrontations against the Netherlands. The edge, the aggression, the shithousery if you like. Tea: what you looking at, fool? Argentina’s fans have loved that. Messi seems to have, too. “He’s always been like that,” Scaloni insists, and there is a fierce, furious competitor in him, but the fact that the coach had to say so was instructive. They have never felt him so close, nor has he felt them like this. This is not just a competition, it is a cause. To rebellion.

“Sometimes it’s an extreme situation, it’s not easy to go out on to the pitch knowing that you have to win and if not you’re going home. We have been doing that since the second game. That has a very big mental cost, and the group has overcome that,” he said. “We have played five ‘finals’ and we have one more.”

It would be wrong to forget how he pulled them towards finals before, but this is something else again. He looks different, sounds different, acts different. Not least because he is a different generation on the journey with him, his role shifting, some of the weight of the past relieved, left behind. Yet there is legacy too, Scaloni says, in what he leaves them. They, in turn, have been desperate to leave him this one last dance.

“What he did in the Copa América was incredible but I have never seen anything like this World Cup in my life,” the goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said. Cristian Romero added: “It’s madness. Everyone knows what he is as a player but he’s the kind of person he is. He’s an example, a guy who always wants more. He has taken so many hits but he always gets back up again.”

Over the past few days, a photo has done the rounds: in it, an 11‑year‑old Julián Álvarez stands alongside his idol, Lionel Messi. He now has another one 11 years on: teammates this time, Messi holds him in a headlock and beams after the Manchester City striker scored against Croatia.

“The things Leo can do are incredible,” he said, and he had seen that first hand, there to finish off an impossible assist, the best of the competition. Except perhaps for the one Messi gave to Nahuel Molina in the previous round.

Messi had provided that pass and the tackle-pass which released Álvarez, running and bundling through, to score the second. It was Enzo Fernández meanwhile who had delivered the ball that led to Messi scoring the first, via the penalty spot. And he too had grown up watching the man who gave Argentina the lead, who grabbed them and pulled them to a second World Cup final, much like Maradona.

In 2016, when Messi was contemplating walking away, Fernández posted a message on Facebook which signed off saying sorry and thank you. It ran: “How are we, a bunch of nobodies who don’t live with 1% of the pressure you do, 40 million people making ridiculous demands of perfection when we don’t even know you, going to try to convince you? Do what you want but think about staying and enjoying it.”

Now at last he is, the time of his life and theirs carrying all of us to a final farewell.

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