National Writer: Charles Boehm

Lionel Messi's moment: World Cup 2022 final offers new peak in legendary career

Messi 1 '22 World Cup semifinal

It takes some memory, and age, or at the very least some diligent research, to know the fullness of the journey Lionel Andrés Messi has taken from his childhood in Rosario to Lusail, the glitzy, garish planned community that will host Sunday’s 2022 FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France on the sandy outskirts of Doha, Qatar (10 am ET | FOX, Telemundo).

Winding journey to greatness

On the club level, the path has wound its way through Buenos Aires and Barcelona and Paris and, for the Argentine national team, to Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro and Kazan and even, on our side of the pond, East Rutherford, New Jersey – site of the 2016 Copa América Centenario final, where Messi missed a penalty kick in an agonizing shootout loss to Chile, and tearfully but (thank goodness) briefly retired from international play.

If reports are correct and he follows through with the next phase in his plan, the adventure will continue in Miami, and MLS, in the coming months, to the great benefit of we North Americans.

Uprooted from his home and relocated to distant Catalonia at age 14, Messi was a fish out of water at the start of his odyssey, an undersized runt so quiet upon his arrival at FC Barcelona that his academy cohorts thought he might be deaf. Within months he was “destroy[ing] us all in a training session” with Barça’s first team, like “an alien,” in the memorable words of his elder French teammate Ludovic Giuly, already on a fast track to a hallowed place in the pantheon of the sport’s greatest icons.

Even if you’re Brazilian, or a card-carrying member of Team Cristiano Ronaldo, or just meh on Messi for whatever reasons, we can and should all appreciate the sheer distance little Leo – whose life was nearly derailed by a growth-hormone disorder when it had barely begun – has traversed to reach this point. Right here and now, though, the most epic career in contemporary professional soccer is poised at a crux on the shores of the Persian Gulf, 90 minutes from becoming the perfect, timeless capstone to an already-GOATed résumé.

Going God mode

Standing in his way? Only the defending World Cup champions, a French side that has surely proven itself the deepest, most diverse player pool in world soccer via one determined display after another in Qatar.

“To be able to finish my journey in the final makes me happy, and everything I have lived here is lovely,” said Messi after Tuesday’s 3-0 semifinal win over Croatia, a nerve-jangling telenovela of an occasion, like every single one of Argentina’s matches at this tournament, yet an ultimately exhilarating one as La Albiceleste’s No. 10 snapped into God mode with stunning virtuosity once again.

Rifling home the opener from the penalty spot and feeding his young strike partner Julian Alvarez for the game’s other two goals, Messi made sure that Luka Modric & Co. would not trip up his quest at the second-to-last hurdle. In doing so he flashed another facet of himself: the clutch, unstoppable, match-winning force.

He’d already given us a glimpse of the cutthroat, street-smart hustler, baring his fangs to taunt Louis van Gaal after an ill-tempered quarterfinal win over the Netherlands. There was also the earnest, world-weary avatar of a nation who had to dig deep to beat Mexico in the group stage, his second-half daisy-cutter past Guillermo Ochoa averting disaster but only bringing celebrations of relief rather than elation.

“It’s what you live when you are here,” said Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni afterward when asked about the obvious emotional trauma his assistant coach Pablo Aimar – Messi’s childhood role model – weathered on the sidelines of that match. “The feeling that you are playing something more than a football match, that’s not nice, and that is what I was feeling.

“The feeling we all had was relief, and of course it is difficult to make people understand that tomorrow the sun will shine whether we win or lose.”

Righting the international ship

As sublime a player as he’s been all these years, Messi’s international career is chock-full of this stress, this collective agony his homeland endures with every big game, heartbreak always lurking just around the corner. Sunday marks Messi’s sixth major tournament final with his country. He’s lost four of those, a soul-crushing string of disappointments it seemed might dog him endlessly until last year’s breakthrough victory – on the turf of their greatest rivals, no less – in the Copa América final in Rio.

“The end has come for me and our team,” Messi lamented after that 2016 loss to Chile at MetLife Stadium. “It has been four finals – it just wasn’t for me, unfortunately. I looked for it and wanted it so bad, but it didn’t happen for me.”

This is Messi’s fifth World Cup. He’s repeatedly made clear he considers it his last. And he’ll finish it with the trophy on the line, not to mention the Golden Boot (and perhaps even the Golden Ball as well) that hangs up for grabs between him and France’s leading light, the young GOAT-in-training Kylian Mbappé, who’s tied with Messi for the tournament scoring lead with five goals apiece.

World awaits storybook finale

It’s not often that a star of Messi’s caliber gets to end things on his own terms, or at least damn close, like this. Nor is it a common opportunity for his compatriots to have the chance to recognize. It certainly wasn’t so for his predecessor Diego Maradona, his former coach and the one he’s so often unflatteringly compared to in Argentina. Maradona’s final World Cup, USA ‘94, ended with a failed drug test at the old Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, the New England Revolution’s first home pitch. It would turn out to be his last match in his country’s colors.

Argentina has certainly taken Messi’s last dance to heart.

Television audiences for the Albiceleste’s run have spanned more than 80% of the domestic population, truly breathtaking numbers even by their own soccer-mad norms. Flights from Buenos Aires to Qatar have reportedly been so popular as to prompt expanded airline service in order to meet the swollen demand to witness the magic firsthand. And in these past weeks we’ve also learned of an adopted Argentine diaspora across the globe. From Doha to Dhaka and myriad points further afield, Messi’s greatness has inspired millions halfway around the planet to don those sky blue-and-white stripes in kinship.

Messi knows all too well that Sunday might not go the way he wants it. As Mbappé’s Paris Saint-Germain teammate, he understands the scale of the difficulty France will pose, and the collective effort required beyond his own. But he’s made it this far, still in control of his own destiny. The rest of us are fortunate we’ll get to watch this last chapter unfold in real-time.