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Lionel Messi’s World Cup swansong might just be his best shot at glory | Jonathan Liew

In the summer of 2016 Diego Maradona and Pelé were sitting in the Palais-Royal in Paris as part of a promotional event organised by a Swiss watch company. Afterwards the pair held a press conference and before long the topic of conversation turned to Lionel Messi.“He is a great person,” Maradona said, “but he has…

In the summer of 2016 Diego Maradona and Pelé were sitting in the Palais-Royal in Paris as part of a promotional event organised by a Swiss watch company. Afterwards the pair held a press conference and before long the topic of conversation turned to Lionel Messi.

“He is a great person,” Maradona said, “but he has no personality. He doesn’t have the personality to be a leader.” Pelé agreed. “He’s not like we were back in the days,” he said. “In the 1970s we had really good players like Rivellino, Gérson, Tostão. Not like Argentina now, which depends only on Messi. Messi is a good player, there’s no doubt about it. But he has no personality.”

As ever the internet lapped up this content for a few hours before moving on to the next thing. And yet in a glib sort of way Pelé and Maradona were simply giving voice to a common view at that point. The key term is “personality”, the idea that somehow the greatest footballers do not simply lead by exemple. Sometimes – if only for reasons of theatre or self-justification – leadership needs to be imposed, to be made visible and tangible.

And over the years this is perhaps the one area of the game in which many have accused Messi of being deficient. Often these criticisms are even expressed in the guise of praise. “[Javier] Mascherano’s impact as a leader is more important inside the squad, and Messi’s leadership is more important on the pitch,” the former Argentina manager Tata Martino said.

“He is a silent leader,” said Jorge Sampaoli. “He has a lot of personality when playing,” insisted Sergio Batista. “Maybe he is missing a little bit in the group. But when he talks in the changing rooms, they listen.” All three of these men, along with Maradona, have managed Messi at international level and presumably had some idea of what they were talking about. And yet none of them was in the Argentina dressing room at the Maracanã before the Copa América final against Brazil in July 2021, when Messi gathered his Argentina teammates in a circle and gave a speech.

“Forty-five days we were locked up in hotels,” Messi said. “Forty-five days without seeing our families, guys. All for what? For this moment. So we’re going to go out there and lift the trophy; we’re going to take it home to Argentina. And I want to finish with this: coincidences don’t exist. This cup was going to be played in Argentina, but God wanted it to be played in Brazil, so that we could win here in the Maracanã and make it more beautiful for all of us.”

For a public that has spent 16 years watching Messi from a distance – expressive and yet mostly mute, a silent blur of limbs and colour – there is something strangely stirring about this oration, filmed as part of a forthcoming Netflix documentary. Argentina would win the final 1-0 and, while hindsight can tell any story you want, Messi’s teammates were quick to attribute their victory in part to his inspirational leadership. “Messi spoke before each game,” Ángel Di María would later testify. “But this last speech was different. He lost his mind.”

This is Messi’s fifth World Cup. And of course there has been a lot of the usual talk about whether he “needs” to win it for his legacy, a lot of the usual hot air and spume about his duel with Cristiano Ronaldo, football discourse reduced to the level of a pub debate. Within Argentina, however, something seems to have changed. After more than a decade of treating Messi as a vessel for their expectations Argentina are finally beginning to ask not what Messi can do for them but what they can do for Messi.

Perhaps the turning point in this respect was the 2019 Copa América campaign, in which Messi was an uncharacteristically vocal presence. He complained about the poor quality of the pitches, described the refereeing as “corrupt” and insisted that the “whole thing is set up for Brazil”.

Having been criticised early in his career for his meek rendition of the national anthem, here Messi sang it loudly and passionately. Nobody ever doubted how much Messi cared. But here, perhaps, was a recognition by him that it needed to be shown, not simply known.

Now, under Lionel Scaloni, Messi’s final shot at World Cup glory may just be his best, too. The retirements of senior players such as Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero have allowed Scaloni to build a more balanced side, in which the midfield is set up to give their captain the ball closer to goal.

After a rotten 2021-22 Messi himself is showing some of his best form for Paris Saint-Germain this season. And for an Argentina team who have not lost in three years, star-laden bombast has been replaced by a quiet resolve, a determination not simply to treasure the result but to relish the journey.

And really, perhaps this was the way it always had to happen. The godlike Messi of the 2010s always felt a slightly uneasy fit with the bespoke demands of international football, where teams need to be built rather than bolted together.

Meanwhile, for a player who essentially emerged fully formed as a child, perhaps Messi needed to go on his own voyage of emotional development, to learn the stickier parts of a game that had always come so naturally to him, a process that from the outside seems to have turned him into a humbler and wiser man. And so, a first World Cup, at the age of 35, completing one of the most fantastical story arcs football has known? As Messi put it in the Maracanã locker room, there are no coincidences.

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