Argentina vs France, Lionel Messi, final, start time, Cristiano Ronaldo, news, stats, Diego Maradona

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Basketball has Jordan and LeBron. Tennis has Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Football has Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, and Messi.

The GOAT debate – greatest of all time – will never truly be settled. There are legitimate arguments in favour of them all.

But on Monday morning, Lionel Messi has the chance to finally silence the greatest argument against him in that eternal argument: his lack of a World Cup title.

In many ways, it is the only remaining asterisk next to his name in the annals of history, the only sticking point in his all-too-compelling case to be proclaimed the finest ever footballer.

For all the individual accolades (seven times Ballon d’Or winner as the best player in the world, surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo’s five) and the incredible success he enjoyed at Barcelona (ten league titles, four Champions League trophies), detractors have always pointed to the one major trophy that the diminutive Argentine has never hoisted.

Pele led Brazil to glory in 1958 and ’62 and popped up again in 1970 while Diego Maradona hoisted the glistening gold trophy in 1986. It is the latter that casts a shadow over football in Argentina – a shadow that Messi will be finally hoping to step out of.

Argentina Captain Diego Maradona holds the 1986 World Cup trophy in a scene from the documentary movie Diego Maradona. Supplied by Roadshow Films.Source: News Regional Media

In almost all statistical categories for club and country, Messi has already surpassed his fellow diminutive left footer. Messi has the most goals for the Albiceleste and the most at a World Cup. He also boasts the most assists for his nation at the World Cup, becoming the first player of any nation to assist in five different World Cups – not to mention he now has the most appearances of any player in World Cup history.

But Maradona has a World Cup. He carried the team to glory in ’86 and nearly repeated the feat four years later, only for a raft of injuries – including an ankle injury to the star man – to ruin Argentina’s hopes come the final.

At past World Cups, Messi has always seemed overwhelmed by the pressure of carrying a team, not to mention the crushing weight of the hopes and expectations of a nation.

In 2014, Messi drove his team to the final – only for the great dream to be pulled apart by the relentless execution of Germany. Messi won five man of the match awards that tournament – including the final. It was clear evidence of his individual brilliance, as if we needed more of that, but it hardly mattered to him. His pained expression as he walked past the golden trophy at full time, unable to grasp it, lingers long in the memory.

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A devastated Messi with the Golden Ball trophy after the World Cup final in 2014.Source: Getty Images

It is that immense pressure that has made the freakish and almost unbelievably brilliant Messi feel human – fallible and emotional like the rest of us.

In 2016, having missed a penalty in a penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the final of the Copa America, the pressure seemed insurmountable.

Just like in 2014, Messi had done is utmost but fallen short. He all-but-announced his international retirement, saying: “In the dressing room I thought that this is the end for me with the national team, it’s not for me. That’s the way I feel right now, it’s a huge sadness once again.”

But just months later, he returned to the team, saying: “Many things went through my head the day of the last final and I seriously thought of leaving, but I love this country and this shirt too much.”

Messi’s desire to prove himself worthy of the love of his nation has been a constant in his international career even from the outset. Having left for Barcelona at just 13, he could well have played for Spain, and as England great Gary Lineker claimed recently, he probably would have won three World Cups by now. But he chose to play for his homeland, to merge Argentina’s free-flowing and individualistic style often born in the streets with Spain and Barcelona’s highly-coached, technical tiki-taka.

Jasmine Garsd, an Argentine-American journalist and host of The Last Cup, a podcast about Messi’s 2022 campaign, recently told NPR: “And this is an identity conflict. This identity conflict follows him throughout his whole career. He’s always kind of straddling in between.”

It is perhaps no surprise that getting the best out of Messi has proven difficult for Argentina.

But this year, this World Cup, is different.

Messi finally seems to be comfortable in his role as the player, the central figure in Argentina’s hopes.

Messi stands tall as Croatia CRUMBLE | 01:04

Without Messi, there’s little chance Argentina would have come close to reaching the World Cup final based on their squad. With him, they have lost just once in their last 42 matches.

Coach Lionel Scaloni inherited the team in the wake of the disastrous 2018 World Cup campaign and set about reshaping the side with the sole priority of best using and integrating Messi. He spoke constantly of the mutual need – between Messi and his teammates, between the team and Messi – but also, crucially, spoke of removing the pressure from his star man.

In 2019, he said: “Leo needs a team and the team needs him … I think that Leo feels comfortable in the national team and takes all the pressure off. Here there is no pressure of anything.”

It paid off. The team was wholly revamped under Scaloni – and Mess finally threw the shackles off in 2021, winning his first-ever major international tournament, the Copa America.

His uncontrollable tears at the final whistle were tears of joy, of relief, of redemption for every World Cup failure. It was the turning point of his long Argentina journey – a rebirth more than 15 years after he burst onto the scene.

Lionel Messi holds the trophy with teammates after winning the final of Copa America Brazil 2021.Source: Getty Images

Now, he walks over the fields of Qatar almost as frequently as he runs. He is 35, after all.

In Qatar, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo became just the fourth and fifth players to ever appear in five World Cups. But of the list of five-time Cup competitors, none have been anywhere near as central to their nation’s hopes as Messi.

Ronaldo, two years older at 37, watched his own World Cup dream crumble around him as he was stranded on Portugal’s bench. He is a dwindling giant, left behind by a new generation.

The twin titans of the modern era have always been pitted against each other, at Spain’s great rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the Ballon d’Or, in the endless debates over who reigns supreme.

As Ronaldo has struggled this World Cup, Messi’s light has perhaps shone even brighter in contrast.

These days, he is almost a man without a position. He roams freely, pulling and stretching defences with his movement off the ball almost as easily as he does with his magical dribbling. Even then, he dribbles with more feints and shimmies now than raw pace or acceleration. He is not the player he once was – but Argentina might just be better for it. Messi must pick and choose his moments. It is only with the faith and hard work of his teammates that this is possible – but Messi has repaid the faith on every occasion.

His two greatest highlights of this World Cup so far have not been goals, but assists. The first was a visionary pass to Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands, a pass that brought back memories of Maradona’s assist for Claudia Caniggia against Brazil in 1990.

Messi takes the mickey in ABSURD display | 01:03

Messi’s second moment of magic was against Croatia in the semi-final. Messi sized up 20-year-old Josko Gvardiol, a breakout star of this World Cup and perhaps the best centre-back of the tournament – and Messi made him look utterly silly. Gvardiol was left a jumble of limbs as Messi gracefully floated by, cutting the ball back for youngster Julian Alvarez to simply pop it in the back of the net.

Messi has four man of the match awards so far this tournament as he hoists Argentina on his back, more individual trophies in a cabinet already jam-packed with individual achievements.

All those accolades and statistics (except for career goals, he leads Ronaldo in virtually all categories) have already embedded Messi as an all-time great.

But, as former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop told ESPN: “This is legacy-defining.

“Messi, I think needs this World Cup win.

“You mention Diego Maradona, I think again, to be kept on that same level as some of the game’s greats.”

For a man of such indomitable greatness, it seems somewhat bizarre that he does not already boast a World Cup – an oversight, a mistake along the line.

Even Argentina’s great rivals can’t help but agree.

Brazil great Rivaldo, who won the Cup in 2002, said: “No words for you Lionel Messi, you already deserved to be World Champion before, but God knows all things and will crown you this Sunday.

‘You deserve this title for the person you are and for the wonderful football you have always played.”

No matter what happens on Monday morning, Messi’s place in the pantheon of greats is already assured.

Now, it is about breaking out of Maradona’s shadow, and finally hoisting the one trophy Messi has not always been denied – and the one he values more than any other.

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