DOHA, QATAR (AP) – As Lionel Messi approaches his second and likely last World Cup final, the stakes could hardly be higher.
The same goes for Argentina after more than 30 years of disappointment since it last won football’s ultimate prize.
For Messi, victory against France at Lusail Stadium tomorrow is a chance to finally get his hands on the one major trophy that has eluded him in his storied career. In doing so, he would push ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has also never won a World Cup, in the long-running rivalry between the two greatest players of their generation.
While 37-year-old Ronaldo exited the tournament at the quarter-finals stage, benched by Portugal and in tears in the likely recognition that his last chance had passed, Messi is summoning some of his finest moments in an Argentina shirt to inspire his country’s run to the final.
“Each time we see him play, he makes us and the players feel something special,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said.
“There’s something about him that people like, not only Argentines. We feel lucky and privileged to have him wear our shirt.”
Messi’s place alongside Diego Maradona as one of Argentina’s two most iconic football stars has been secure for some time now.
But he is yet to emulate Maradona’s greatest achievement by leading his national team to a World Cup title. Maradona did that in Mexico in 1986 and Messi has lived with the expectation of repeating the feat since he emerged as a prodigy at Barcelona nearly 20 years ago.
There have been numerous false hopes during that time.
There was the potential “dream team” of Maradona as coach and Messi as star player in South Africa in 2010.
But Argentina went out in the quarterfinals after being beaten 4-0 by Germany.
In 2014, with Messi approaching his peak years, Argentina reached the final in Brazil. Again it faced Germany. Again Messi was on the losing side, beaten 1-0 through extra time. At the age of 35, he knew this was probably his last shot at the World Cup and he has risen to the occasion as the tournament’s co-leading scorer with France forward Kylian Mbappé with five goals.
Perhaps more notable have been his assists, such as the disguised pass for Nahuel Molina’s goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Then there was his mesmerizing run, turning Croatia defender Joško Gvardiol inside out, before setting up Julián Álvarez for Argentina’s third in the semis.
“It’s at least something I can talk (about) with my kids one day that I guarded this great, great player,” Gvardiol said on Thursday.
Those assists have been indicative of the fact that Messi can no longer do it on his own.
The emergence of Álvarez, with four goals, has been vital to Argentina’s progress.
Messi doesn’t dominate for an entire 90 minutes anymore.
Instead, he decides matches with key moments. He isn’t as dynamic as he was in his younger years, but he has been more influential than at any of his previous four World Cups.
While Messi is aiming to complete his personal collection of trophies, Argentina is looking to end its long wait for a third World Cup. It won the tournament for the first time when hosting in 1978 and then again eight years later thanks to Maradona.
Messi was supposed to emulate that feat long before now.
If he retires without ever winning the World Cup, then how much longer will Argentina have to wait? No wonder each moment of Messi magic and every win is greeted with such an outpouring of emotion.
The sense of anticipation is growing among Argentina fans, who have lit up the tournament in a sea of blue and white. Messi is feeding the belief that this could be their time again.
And with or without a World Cup, Scaloni has no doubt about Messi’s status as the greatest of all time.
“It seems like we say that just because we’re Argentinians and we fall into the trap of being selfish because it is very Argentinian to say that,” he said. “But I think there are no doubts.”