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A Different Messi

The goalkeepers had exchanged their pleasantries. The French and Argentine players were standing with arms around their teammates, in straight lines as a show of bonhomie. Mbappe, the heir apparent to Lionel and Cristiano, the next addition to the hallways of footballing royalty, had already dispatched the opening goal of the penalty shootout with aplomb. 

It was now the turn of Messi. Tiptoeing towards the penalty spot, as the diminutive magician did, the pressure was high. As the veins of the Argentine supporters bulged and the heart of Scaloni raced, what did Messi do? He steps up, takes a hop, and passes the ball past Loris - not like it’s the ultimate footballing prize at stake, but like it’s a backyard game with his kids at his Paris mansion, where he is hosting a barbeque and sipping beer.  

The goal was so much Messi-like and yet not so much. The poise, elegance, and placement of the penalty were reminiscent of so many spot kicks that Messi has taken, especially in his heydays at Barcelona. But people who have witnessed the great man’s career from the get-go, especially with Argentina in the big tournaments, know that the stage, the moment, and the pressure have seen him miss. He looked unsure, even a little bit timid, with that huge Maradona-sized chip weighing on his shoulder. His missed pen in the 2016 Copa America finale posed so many questions, mostly unfair and baseless, about his ability to do it with the national team, that he had to retire to escape the turmoil and the disappointment. Yet his spot kick showed none of it. It showed arrogance, a tad bit of entitlement, and an edge that was not previously visible, at least from the outside, even on a player of his ilk.

 Argentina was kicked out of the 2018 World Cup by France and a scintillating 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe in the quarters. They then lost to Brazil in the final of Copa America 2019. Messi came out in press conferences after the final loss, looking visibly angry, questioning the refereeing decisions and insinuating bias from the officials somewhat related to the tournament being held in Brazil. But this was not Messi. Anger, and the blame game…this was the exact opposite of what he was known for i.e., humility, acceptance, and just being focused on playing the game. But in the words of Messi’s biographer, that night something flipped in Lionel. It has remained flipped ever since…

The “Messi with an edge” was visible from the start of the tournament. Make no mistake, Argentina did not look like the best contender to win the tournament throughout the World Cup. Yes, they dazzled in the final, at least for the first 80 minutes. But that has not been the case for the entirety of the tournament. Their experienced generals of midfield, Parades, and De Paul are not the second comings of Rijkaard and Gattuso by any stretch of the imagination. It has been more often than not, the Messi show. After losing to Saudi in their opening game, they were on the verge of exit as they were outplayed by Mexico in a must-win game, before Messi’s sensational shot from outside. In the last 16, as Argentina got dominated by a lowly Australia, he gave them the lead with a cute finish from inside the box against the run of play. Against Holland in the quarters, his reverse pass assisting Molina found the right-back in such a tight space, that a mere mortal’s naked eye wouldn’t have seen it even with a 360-degree zoom lens. Messi’s badass attitude was on full display, when during the shootout with the Dutch, he scored his pen, put his hand behind his ears, and stood in front of Van Gal in a Riquelme-style stance, rubbing the defeat in the Dutch and ex-Barcelona coach’s face.

Against Croatia in the semis came Messi’s Maradona moment. He accelerated past Gvardiol, the revelation defender of the tournament, and was caught by the youngster in no time. Messi is no spring chicken. He doesn’t have the pace he had in 2014. He doesn’t even have the pace that Maradona had in 1986. But he held off the Croatian, twisting and turning, somehow reaching the edge of the box. He then did what he would be able to in his sleep. A subtle drop of the shoulder, leaving Gvardiol in his wake, off balance and mesmerized, to square the ball for young Alvarez to tuck in. The pass won’t be remembered. The goal won’t be revered. But what happened to Gvardiol will forever be engraved in the memory of football fans around the globe. It will be THE ICONIC moment of an iconic career.


The final was brilliantly chaotic. But it started with a calm and composed pen by Messi, which opened the scoring for the six-goal thriller. It was exactly like the one he would score in the shootout to decide the fate of the World Cup 2022. The opener, along with everything that happened to Messi and was caused by Messi since 2019, led to the sense of inevitability the great man felt as he approached to take his last kick of the game. All of it had contributed to the slight aura of arrogance around him. He stroked the ball as if it was nothing, as he knew, it will go in, no matter how it was kicked. He believed the trophy was his and his only. And guess what…it was. 

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