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Men’s Football Will a World Cup title establish Messi as the greatest ever?

JAMES NALTON thinks it shouldn’t all come down to the outcome of the Argentina v France final to solidify the players’ spot in the Hall of Fame

FOR Lionel Messi, it all comes down to this. A World Cup final between Argentina and France, the second such occasion in his career, and a final opportunity to put to bed the question of whether he is the greatest ever. Except it shouldn’t all come down to this, really.

This game will merely decide whether Argentina will win the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The question of whether Messi is the greatest footballer ever has already been answered in the affirmative.

The Argentina narrative, that of a country possibly winning its third World Cup, sits below the Messi narrative, though they are currently inexorably intertwined. Messi relies on Argentina. Argentina relies on Messi.

Assistance at this tournament has come from the likes of 22-year-old Manchester City striker Julian Alvarez and one of its breakout stars, 21-year-old Enzo Fernandez of Benfica.

Both were playing club football in Argentina as recently as this year prior to moves to Europe in the summer, giving them and their team’s strong links to their home nation despite the fact no outfield players in this squad currently play in Argentina. 

The type of links it feels like Messi has had to work on, having spent much of his football life in Catalonia with Barcelona. But Messi needs Argentina, Argentina needs Messi, and he is now primarily an Argentina player — he has been since his move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain. 

Messi is now a player who sometimes turns out for the best, or rather richest, team in Ligue 1 to keep himself fit, sharp and ready for when La Albiceleste come calling.

Even in apparent cruise control at the age of 35, he remains the best player at his club, and in Ligue 1, and in Europe, and, apparently, the world. 

The best passer, the best dribbler, and the most creative player. His high-profile PSG teammates, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, may have more goals in the league, but Messi has assisted six of Mbappe’s 12 and four of Neymar’s 11.

He already has three assists at this World Cup to go with his five goals. He played a part in both of Alvarez’s goals against Croatia — the first a burst of energy to win a ball deep in his own half, flicking it on to the forward who then travelled half the length of the field before the ball rebounded off a couple of defenders and presented itself for Alvarez to finish.

The second assist, which will actually be recorded as such, unlike the first, was more memorable.

It will be at the Lusail Iconic Stadium on Sunday that this icon of the sport may have his final defining moment, but in many ways, this assist was already it.

Opta and other data collectors were able to define the assist and the moments leading up to it using their pre-defined categories, but none of this data is able to fully describe how Messi took the ball past Josko Gvardiol multiple times to set up Alvarez.

It was Maradona-esque, and it is perhaps more significant for being an assist rather than a goal. Alvarez’s name will be prominent on the scoresheet. Messi’s name will be prominent in the legend.

Completed dribbles and attacking duels won — there seemed to be several of both in that same play against a young defender who had been one of the standout players at the World Cup. Then a completed pass, a key pass, an assist.

Players like Messi will often be described as Playstation footballers — which apparently refers to players whose movement seems to defy physics and could only be produced in the simulated, fantasy world of a video game. But the best footballers cannot even be defined in this way. What they produce cannot be replicated by any series of external commands or button presses.

The fact Gvardiol was wearing a mask added to the theatre, and if there needs to be a video game comparison, this was more like Messi defeating an end-of-level boss that needed to be bypassed in order to progress.

Gvardiol himself is one of the quicker defenders of his type but was still evaded thanks to a combination of guile, technique, acceleration, and, perhaps above all, ingenuity. 

It’s also worth pointing out that being defeated by Messi should not take away from Gvardiol’s otherwise excellent performances at the tournament. 

He won’t be the first outstanding defender to be defeated by Messi, and as they head into Sunday’s final, Argentina hope he won't be the last. 

“I’m personally very happy,” Messi said after the 3-0 win against Croatia in the semi-final.

“I’m enjoying it a lot and I’m happy to be able to help my teammates make things happen.”

The game for Messi is not yet completed. There is now a final boss in the shape of Didier Deschamps’s effective but not always popular France team, which makes them ideal for this role.

Messi has already retired from international football once, following a bitterly disappointing defeat to Chile on penalties in the 2016 Copa America final during which he missed in the shootout. He reversed the decision fairly quickly, eventually claiming the Copa in 2021 — his first trophy at international level.

Messi has already admitted there may not be another World Cup in him, though, and he will turn 39 during the next one which takes place across the North American continent. 

By then he’ll likely have spent some time playing and living in that region, as there are rumours he will end his club career as a player in Major League Soccer, so it would not be a surprise to see an unexpected swansong in 2026, but for now, he’s ruling that out.

“It’s my last World Cup,” Messi said. “It is impressive to end up playing a final and there is a long way to go before the next one.

“There are many years and, surely, because of age, I won’t get to it.”

Surely not? A hint there that he might get to it, but for now he is happy and focused on this one.

“It’s the sixth final that Argentina is going to play and I’ll have played in two,” he added. “Hopefully this time it ends up another way.”

He’s picked a fine time to leave at Lusail, especially so if Argentina win. Even if they don’t, the last of football’s wandering, creative, attacking geniuses has shown he is the greatest of them all. A player with 21st-century fitness and a 20th-century football brain.

Some might say Messi’s compatriot Diego Maradona still holds the title of the greatest, and it certainly cannot be begrudged him, but if Messi is not greater, then it is likely no-one ever will be — a testament to them both, and indeed to Argentina as a football nation. 

A football nation that, this Sunday, has the chance to be crowned the best in the world once again.

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