It’s a shame!

It’s a shame!

Lionel Messi is playing an outstanding World Cup. He had to wait long enough for it. An appreciation before his last game at a World Cup.

Five minutes. There were only five minutes on top of that in Tuesday night’s World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Croatia, and although by then the outcome of this game had long been settled at 3-0, Italian referee Daniele Orsato would have liked to have taken his cue from the often outsized stoppage times that some of his colleagues have flickered across the scoreboards during this tournament. For a player on the immaculate green turf at the Lusail Stadium had and gave so much fun that it was actually already subject to entertainment tax.

And now that it is known that this Lionel Messi will play only one more World Cup game (read more here), every moment that may come in the final next Sunday will be even more precious. The 35-year-old has now announced that the match will be his last appearance at the world’s biggest sporting event. And as much as one might wish the greatest footballer of the last 15 years a farewell with the really big triumph: It is a pity.

Because this Lionel Messi has perhaps never been so much fun as at this World Cup. Not because he’s playing better, passing more accurately or scoring more often than usual at the tournament in Qatar. No. It’s because he’s finally playing as well, passing as accurately, and scoring as often as usual at the tournament in Qatar.

They have found each other
After four mixed World Cup appearances, the championship in the desert state is finally the tournament he defines, where he excels as he once did in his prime with FC Barcelona. His last major tournament is his most memorable, best, greatest.

Five goals and three assists in six games so far. In 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 he scored six goals, plus five assists – combined. Now, however, at least on paper in the autumn of his career, Lionel Messi’s full playing genius is also unfolding on the very big stage. Whereas in the past he often seemed to despair of his role in the Albiceleste, where he repeatedly seemed like a foreign body, inhibited, cramped, hapless, he and his national team have now found each other. He fights and conjures, he runs and sprints, he toils and tricks, he shoots and prepares, he leads his team, and anyone who is not able to enjoy, to be inspired by this playfulness of “La Pulga” (“The Flea”), which is contagious to his teammates, has either never loved soccer or is keeping it up with a certain rival in the Portugal jersey.

In any case, according to public opinion, the other two great footballers of our time seem to have lacked precisely this capacity for enthusiasm: Cristiano Ronaldo? A perpetually disgruntled noble joker, he failed with Portugal in the quarterfinals against Morocco. Neymar? In the course of the tournament overshadowed by the spectacularly scoring Richarlison, he failed miserably in the quarterfinals against Croatia – after he had announced before the start that he wanted to dedicate his first goal to the recently voted out Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, a nasty right-wing populist to whom he is infinitely grateful for having publicly supported him during his rape scandal.

Like Fifa on “amateur”
Messi, however, has understood what this World Cup is all about, for Argentina, for himself: simply about soccer. And he takes responsibility: penalty shootout in the heated duel against the Netherlands? Messi was the first of his team to face the “Oranje” goalkeeper Andries Noppert – and he put the ball into the net with the conviction of a team captain who knows for whom the hour has struck: for him and for Argentina.

The same was true of his penalty kick in the semifinals, which he put millimeter-precisely under the crossbar, unstoppable for Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, whose invincibility from the spot had previously been a source of pain for the Japanese and Brazilians. Messi had put everything into this shot, the dream of the title, perhaps also pent-up anger from previous World Cup participations. It was now or never. Who can stop him in this form?

He even got into it with Dutchman Wout Weghorst, whom he snapped at in front of running cameras during an interview after the quarterfinal win over the Oranje (read more here). According to reports, the hulking goal scorer and his teammates constantly provoked the hot-blooded Argentine during the match. Messi takes on everyone, and his teammates, the fans, we spectators get infected.

Then came the next gala against Croatia (read more here). So floatingly light, so intoxicated, so much faster, more alert, better, as if the video game “Fifa” had simply been set to the easiest difficulty level “amateur. And maybe there will be a little more stoppage time in Sunday’s final, his last appearance at a World Cup.

That’s how much fun Lionel Messi is having at this World Cup. Finally.