Messi or Ronaldo? Over the past 15 years, the soccer world has debated these issues continuously. Those pointless drills involving pounding heads against a wall while hoping for a result are finally finished. At the age of 35, Lionel Messi established his legacy in Qatar with one of his most legendary performances.
When it appeared that the best soccer player of his generation would retire after winning the sport’s biggest award, everything came together as if fate had been leading them all along.
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There was optimism that Messi and Argentina would succeed in this final World Cup run, despite the fact that he was past his prime and not at his best. While having hope is one thing, having faith in something happening is quite another. The dream seemed to be over after a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in the opening match. On the international stage, it would be heartache and disappointment for Messi, as it has been so many times before.
But something changed.
Argentina was on the verge of another defeat when Messi, much like a caterpillar releasing its cocoon, burst to life. But this wasn’t the Messi that everyone has grown to know during the past 18 amazing years. Normally usually calm and stoic, something happened that brought forth a side of the legend we rarely witness.
This transformation was most demonstrated in the thrilling quarterfinal victory over the Netherlands, where Messi once again contributed but did so with a passion and fire rarely displayed. The seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or was seen celebrating in front of Louis van Gaal and Edgar Davids after the crucial penalty shootout.
Later, in a post-game interview, he used humorous remarks to teach the opposing attacker Wout Weghorst a lesson. More than anything else in his career, Messi wanted Argentina to win this World Cup, and it started to show.
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The scenario was set for a showdown final against France following a 3-0 demolition of Croatia in the semifinals, in which Messi played a key role and turned the clock back with skill and grace in the final third. Messi, who suffered the heartache of losing the 2014 World Cup final when Mario Gotze scored in overtime, was all too familiar with the scene.
It was different this time. Messi scored the first penalty and contributed to an exquisite team goal as Argentina stormed to a 2-0 first-half lead against the incredibly skilled France. When Kylian Mbappe tied the score with two goals within 90 seconds of one another, the game appeared to be in his grasp, but it was quickly overturned. He must be experiencing the full weight of his failures on the global stage. His last opportunity slipping away.
When Messi broke the tie with a goal in the 108th minute, his side later gave up a penalty, it looked as though he had written the most ridiculous of endings in stoppage time. His team undoes all of his effort with yet another missed opportunity for glory. The plot appeared to be moving inexorably in that direction.
However, Messi and Argentina persisted in achieving their goals. The story had a happy conclusion because to Emi Martinez’s late one-on-one save in extra time and heroics in the penalty shootout; perhaps we’ll see it in a Hollywood movie someday.
For many people, Lionel Messi is the greatest player that has ever lived, regardless of whether he wins the World Cup or not. But the fact that he did, and that he did it as the main focus at such a late point in his career, ends any discussion. Except for his international accomplishments, no one has ever questioned Messi’s resume.
His critics used the argument that he always had assistance, such as from Pep Guardiola’s strategies or Andres Iniesta and Xavi playing behind him. This victory dispels any concerns about his ability to lead a team to success when it means the most.
This World Cup 2022 run is unique because of how his personality altered drastically during the course of it. A normally reserved superstar became one who would do anything to ensure the objective was achieved due to the passion and drive to finally win the one prize that had eluded them. The real sign of a great athlete is that.
Since the first day he played for Barcelona, he has carried the weight of an entire country. He has also received criticism from his own nation for not being able to perform as well for his country as he did for his club.
Now, all of those doubts and questions from both detractors and supporters have been eliminated. There is no doubt as to who the greatest men’s soccer player of all time is after an impeccable career concluded on the largest platform.
Sports debates will always happen. But Messi’s career will no longer be discussed in terms of comparisons to Pelé, Diego Maradona, or Cristiano Ronaldo. The only natural question at this point is how he compares to Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, and the others as the greatest athlete of all-time.
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