Does it actually matter if Lionel Messi wins a World Cup? This will now be the narrative around the dog days of his final global tournament leading up to the final on Sunday.
The reality is something else. In fact, watching Messi here the opposite seemed to be the case. This was not just a performance of edge and thrust and decisive moments but all of those things carved out of the air in his own unique physical style, a footballer capable, at 35, of basically making this thing up in his own image.
Football will always be the most literal-minded, outcome‑based form of sporting chaos. But whatever the final strokes of this fever dream of a winter World Cup, one thing seems inarguably true. The small, badger-ish figure in the baggy blue and white shirt, that man out there turning the game against the iron fist of the Croatia midfield, is already the best footballer who has ever played.
He has been for ages, was also the last time he reached a World Cup final, eight years ago, just in a slightly different guise. And there was something of the throwback, the football equivalent of a sentimental wedding anniversary dance, about the third and final goal of this Messi-drunk semi-final victory.
There were 69 minutes gone when Messi took the ball on the right. Straight away there was something different in his stride, that buried, ferrety sense of purpose. He dropped a shoulder. He jinked. Wait. He’s doing Messi redux. He’s doing the winger thing.
Messi led Josko Gvardiol into the area, holding his man off, touching the ball constantly like woodpecker hammering at a piece of bark. Then he pirouetted back, a kind of lure, before spinning back towards goal and inside Gvardiol once again, who is, lest we forget, 20 years old and the defender of this tournament, but is now out here being rinsed, and rinsed again like a wet tea towel.
From there Messi had the space to roll the ball back at 45 degrees for Julián Álvarez to kill the game. The run, the pass, the finish, it all felt like a kind of mnemonic, a memento Messi, another ghost at this World Cup of ghosts.
But then every one of these late‑Messi knockout games has a strange sense of peril around it. Could this be it? Are we saying goodbye to something here? If so, there will be a fitting wake. The Lusail Stadium is an aggressively splendid thing inside, sides craning towards its closable roof, an expanse of darkness above the top ringed with vast steel braces like an open mouth howling at the sky.
Argentina’s fans had one end of it, although any attempt to generate an authentic atmosphere was of course drowned by the mind-numbingly inane PA. It is to be hoped this is dialled back for the final because something is happening here with Argentina’s fans.
Heading down through concourses there was once again a kind of spontaneous San Gennaro procession, the blue and white shirts singing, stamping, waving their litany of relics, the severed cardboard Maradona head, the flags, the miraculous vestments and trinkets. There is always something devotional about Argentinian football. At this tournament it has felt like a kind of festival of faith, a Messi revivalist parade.
Argentina needed his spark here as Croatia dominated the ball early on, superior midfield genes kicking in. It was once suggested that Luka Modric looks like a little boy dressed up as a witch. This is no longer the case.
He now looks like a teenager dressed up as a witch. And he was brilliant here for 20 minutes, right up until the moment another kind of destiny intervened.
The opening goal came from nowhere. Enzo Fernández played a straight pass into the space behind the Croatia defence. There was Álvarez sprinting away, but brought down as he nicked the ball past Dominik Livakovic. Messi took the ball studiously, staring at his feet, then produced an unsaveable penalty, zinged into the roof of the net. This was Messi’s fifth goal at this World Cup and also, oddly enough, his fourth at the self-styled “Iconic” stadium. If you build it, he will, apparently, come.
Then something more knockabout happened, as Álvarez, who was brilliant all game, scored a wonderfully direct faux‑Diego to make it 2-0. Has there been a weirder World Cup wondergoal? This was Maradona ’86 recreated after closing time using wheelie bins and a tennis ball.
Messi gave the final pass deep inside his own half. And from there Álvarez had open grass ahead of him, staffed by a terrified rolling retreat. He kept running. And kept running. Basically he ran in a straight line for 60 metres with the ball, crash-tackled the last two defenders and had the skill to produce a dainty little finish, almost an afterthought, like touching in at the end of a race.
By the end Messi had scored one, made one, touched the ball 63 times, made more dribbles than anyone else on the pitch, and played the role of dad‑like force of guiding destiny to perfection.
What now then? Is Messi about to decorate this thing, this World Cup of death, with its dream ending? Does it matter much either way? His genius exists in these moments, the mooching figure out there under the lights, smaller, older, more everyday than the super-athletes around him, the normcore Mozart mooching about still making these extraordinary things happen.