Why Lionel Messi is better than ever
LUSAIL, Qatar – The darkest moments of Lionel Messi’s career in Argentina began with a lonely walk. He broke away from a line of tense teammates standing shoulder to shoulder and slunk into a searing headlight. It was the final chapter of a hectic night, Argentina’s first attempt at a penalty shoot-out after a 120-minute loss. And with every agonizingly slow step, from midfield to the penalty spot, the pressure gripped Messi’s magical limbs.
It was June 26, 2016, six years before he stepped into a similar spotlight here at the World Cup. And that night in New Jersey, he looked toward goal with a pained look as he had a smaller trophy within reach. Seconds later he shot a ball over the bar. He grabbed his jersey with both hands and tugged angrily. He grimaced as he walked back into midfield and covered his face in horror.
Messi is “broken”, his big friend Sergio Aguero later said after Argentina lost the Copa America final. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Aguero said. Messi used a dugout and supportive teammates to keep his battered body upright. After the clocks struck midnight, he left the national team. “I tried so hard to be [a] Champions with Argentina but it didn’t happen, I couldn’t do it,” he said. The mission and the crushing weight of it were just “not for me”.
All of this was the context for his last lonely walk, from midfield to another penalty spot, into another searing headlight, for another first try after another 120-minute spanking here on another hectic night, this time in a World Cup quarter-final.
This time, when he came under pressure early on Saturday, Messi ignored him.
Because this time, at his last World Cup, Messi was substituted.
He bored his eyes into the ball and with the calm of a shy boy in a Rosario park, surrounded by siblings and cousins, he fooled a Dutch goalkeeper and put Argentina ahead on penalties. Across three unforgettable hours at the Lusail Stadium, reckless play and 17 yellow cards and unrelenting noise, he led Argentina to the semi-finals with unleashed brilliance, over limbs no longer obsessed with pressure because, as Argentine legend Jorge Valdano recently said: “He is liberated.”
For years, as Argentina’s games turned into barbaric madhouses, they often engulfed Messi and his magic. But here and now, feeling “more experienced and mature,” he didn’t just participate in Friday’s mayhem; he rose above it. He scored a goal and celebrated it with arms outstretched, then danced to the Dutch bench and stood there for a few iconic seconds, his palms wide open next to his ears.
“I didn’t feel respected by [Netherlands coach Louis] Van Gaal after his pre-game comments,” Messi said after the game. “And some Dutch players talked too much during the game.”
He spoke with his mouth, but also with his sparkling toes. He dropped both shoulders to shake the defenders. In the midst of wild movements and a constant noise, he remained composed. He walked leisurely and sought space, as he does more often than anyone else in modern football, turning a trait usually associated with laziness into a superpower.
In the 34th minute he almost stood still for moments, surveying and processing the chaos around him before discovering space, receiving the ball and ascending to another planet. He pulled away from two Dutchmen, but saw six others obstructing him, so he took to the skies for a bird’s eye viewand sought out an alien passport that can only be found via satellite.
His touches in the first half and the weight of his passes were close to perfect. His second-half penalty, converted by goalkeeper Andries Noppert after shamelessly trying to upset him, was accurate.
Messi played the entire game relaxed – that’s how he’s felt this whole month and the last. He has found peace and perspective. He has learned to think, “to attach more importance to small details,” as he put it; To enjoy moments on the greatest stage in sport, rather than shying away from them. And with a Copa America title finally in tow since last summer, he feels “more relaxed” and “calmer, which allows us to work in a different way and without fear,” he said.
The pressure that is still there is no longer an obstacle. Messi has emerged from it as a different man – and by extension a different player, a peerless one who resembles only his Barcelona self in his mid-20s.
In the past, s***housery – a football term for sneaky and ugly foul play – made him an abridged sideshow. On Friday and until the early hours of Saturday he was the protagonist of the apartment search. Amidst the chaos following the end of the penalty shoot-out, after other Argentine players rubbed defeat in the faces of dejected opponents, Messi sought out Dutch coaches and raised his right hand, chewing his four fingers and thumb together in a speaking motion, mocking them.
Not long after that confrontation, during a television interview, he saw Dutch striker Wout Weghorst pass by. “Where are you looking, bobo?” he snapped, using a Spanish word for “fool.”
Messi celebrated exuberantly, his mood more joyful than relieved. He spoke kindly and clearly to reporters, as he has done throughout the tournament. He’s now just two steps away from a semi-final against Croatia (Tuesday, 2pm ET, Fox/Telemundo) that overwhelmed him in Russia four years ago and will likely charge, crunch and hack him just as much as the Dutch did Friday.
And maybe the Croatians will talk too. If so, all the better.
“I think Leo felt a bit offended,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni after Friday’s game. “And [he] shown he’s the best ever.”