Lionel Messi has mastered a football like no one else. But is that enough?

Lionel Messi has been on this planet for 35 years, five months and 24 days, and for most of that time he has dreamt of winning the World Cup. But at around 8pm on Sunday in Lusail he will stop dreaming; whether Messi joins Pele and Diego Maradona among the pantheon of legendary World Cup winners will be known, and it will never be rewritten.

From then on he will either be the man who won the World Cup or the man who didn’t, one match defining a career already packed full of historic moments, and the strange part is there’s only so much he can do about it. Messi will have the ball at his feet for about 60-90 seconds over the course of the final, and the reality is that many of the finer details of the most important game of his life will be beyond his control.

At the end of it all, his legacy may come down to a penalty shootout, and perhaps a single swing of someone else’s boot. Angel Di Maria delivered the match-winning touch of the 2021 Copa America final to finally win Messi an international trophy, and something similar might happen on Sunday; his destiny may lie with a teammate like Lautaro Martinez, a man who has mostly looked lost in Qatar, holding his nerve from 12 yards.

When we consider footballing greatness, we are really adding up two things: skill or talent or brilliance, and tangible achievements. They are intertwined but distinct. One is the journey, the other is the destination. One creates memories, the other leaves behind legacy. One is found on YouTube, the other on Wikipedia.

The first part, Messi’s talent, has been demonstrated over and over again, and if this World Cup has changed anyone’s mind about whether he really is the best player of his generation, then they can’t have been watching his career. If he needs this final to prove his skill then they must have missed his genius. If they needed his mesmerising semi-final dribble against Croatia to be convinced, then they must have forgotten the slalom against Getafe in 2007; the Champions League goal against Real Madrid in 2011; the winner against Brazil in 2012. They must not have seen the Copa del Rey final against Athletic in 2015.

There are other modern players who have scored as many goals, like Cristiano Ronaldo; who have dribbled as gracefully, like Ronaldinho; who have shown such precise awareness of space, like Zinedine Zidane; but no one can claim to have done all these things, to this level, for this long.

Messi has been supreme in every context: dribbling, passing, shooting from close and long range, when the ball is moving and when it is still. He has reached the highest level of footballing consciousness and visited the deepest wells of understanding. He intuitively knows the ball’s relationship with gravity when he lifts it over a wall, the bounce it will make when it hits his knee on the run, how it will react to the slightest touch at full pelt. Put in its most simple terms, nobody has ever mastered a football like Messi.

Messi dribbles during the semi-final

(AFP via Getty Images)

And yet, his achievements are incomplete. The space on his trophy cabinet raises doubt, it questions him. Pele won three World Cups. Maradona dragged an otherwise unfancied group of players to glory in 1986. The Fenomeno Ronaldo lost, returned, and won it four years later.

Does Messi need to win the World Cup to fulfil his greatness? Surely one solitary match, a decade on from his peak, shouldn’t change anything. After all, this is Bonus Messi, Extra Time Messi. We’ve been drunk on the wonder of Messi over and over again and these are just the final intoxicating drops. He has already scored or created more than a thousand goals, won a stack of major club trophies, seven Ballons d’Or, and one Copa America after three bruising finals lost. He’s now reached two World Cup finals, and the outcome of Sunday’s match is only partly in his sway. Isn’t that enough?

It comes down to our interpretation of greatness, of how much we believe individual skill requires team achievement to hold meaning; whether talent must be transformed into something concrete, something you can touch. Neymar’s wonderful quarter-final goal against Croatia was his iconic, career-defining, life-affirming moment, for about 13 minutes. Then Bruno Petkovic scored, and Brazil were knocked out, and it was forgotten. Should Argentina lose to France then perhaps the same will happen to Messi’s inspirational moments in this World Cup, consigned to the corners of history.

Maybe Messi’s place among the footballing gods does demand the World Cup. But if he fails, or he leaves behind a dizzy Theo Hernandez, twists Ibrahima Konate into existential crisis and curls the ball past a stranded Hugo Lloris to win the game, don’t change your mind about his brilliance. Because if you do, you haven’t been paying attention.

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