The FIFA World Cup 2022 will be the launchpad for new names, new stories and new triumphs. But for one of the most gifted players of all time – some would argue the GOAT – it will be the end of an international career. Lionel Messi has announced that after the tournament finishes on December 18th, he’ll hang up his Argentina jersey for the final time. At 35, he’ll have featured in five World Cup Finals, breaking the Argentinian record of four jointly held by Javier Mascherano and Diego Maradona. He has the chance – should Argentina make the final – to surpass Lothar Matthäus’ record of 25 World Cup Finals games. However, this is not a farewell tour for one man; La Pulga is desperate to captain his side to the trophy on December 18th.
Eternally associated with FC Barcelona, Messi was lured from his homeland to the Camp Nou at only 13 years old, and made his debut at 16. The years following saw him terrorize defences in Spain and beyond. He made 520 appearances, scoring 474 goals and helping Barca to 10 La Liga titles and 4 Champions Leagues. However, off the pitch, things became less rosy and Barcelona’s financial situation precarious. After falling foul of La Liga fiscal rules, it became impossible for the club to keep Messi – he had agreed a 50% pay cut – and he signed for Paris St Germain in August of 2021. Joining fellow Argentine Mauro Icardi, he helped continue PSG’s domestic dominance, taking the Ligue 1 title for 2021/2022.
The national team’s fans have never taken Messi quite as close to their hearts as the Blaugranas have. Despite 164 international caps (and 90 goals) some see him as more Spanish than Argentinian. He suffers in comparison to Maradona, who dragged an average Argentina side to glory in World Cup 1986 almost by sheer force of will. While the 2021 Copa America victory – defeating deadly rivals Brazil in the final – will have exorcised some of those ghosts, Messi will be painfully aware that the World Cup winner’s medal is one of the very few trophies not in his cabinet.
Pundits rate Argentina as having a reasonable chance of glory in Qatar. They’ve landed in the harder side of the draw, however, they should top a group featuring Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia. Doing so would likely avoid a second round tie against highly-fancied France, although may instead lead to a clash against Denmark, who are no slouches. From there it only gets tougher. The quarter final would most likely be a resurgent Netherlands, and the semi could cast them against Spain, Germany or tournament favorites Brazil. If they progress, the final opponent could be England, France – or the man who’s battled with Messi for the title of soccer’s best player for two decades – Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. In Coral’s World Cup betting odds, Messi is joint fourth with Ronaldo and Neymar to be the Golden Boot winner. He hasn’t been as prolific at World Cups as in his club career, with six goals in 19 matches. While Messi was frequently the spearhead of the Barcelona attack, his country have preferred to deploy him behind an out-and-out striker – Gonzalo Higuain when they were defeated in the final by Germany in 2014, and likely to be Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez this time out.
The 2014 generation is now gone, with Messi the only remaining player to have tasted defeat on the pitch in that final (although Angel di Maria was an unused substitute). If Messi can marshal his men to go one better their Copa America triumph of last year, this World Cup would outstrip Ronaldo’s having won the European Championship with Portugal. Will the most hardcore of Maradona stans ever accept Leo’s as El Diego’s equal? Perhaps not. Debates will rage in the bars of Buenos Aires long past this tournament’s conclusion. It’s all part of the joy of soccer.