There was almost a sense of inevitability to it. Lionel Messi had to win the football World Cup.
Like Sachin Tendulkar had to win the cricket World Cup. Like Roger Federer had to win the Wimbledon. Like Tiger Woods had to win the Masters. Like Usain Bolt had to win the Olympic 100m gold.
When you are the best, you deserve the best. Messi has been the world’s best footballer of his generation, by some margin. After leading Argentina to its first World Cup in 36 years, he could even stake a claim to being the best ever. Not that he would care.
What he cared about was winning the World Cup. We saw how much it meant to him when he stole that kiss at the Cup before it was presented to Argentina.
The kiss and the happy smile on his face showed why the FIFA World Cup is the planet’s greatest show. The Olympic Games may be grander, and the intensity of a gripping cricket Test may be unparalleled, but there is nothing quite like the football World Cup.
Little wonder the entire world turns its attention to this incredible tournament once every four years. You just wouldn’t want to miss a game at a World Cup. Come to think of it, even the pandemic spared it. But the controversies did not.
There have been debates about bribery allegations (to get the rights as the host), human rights, equal rights, homophobia, the ban on alcohol... but nobody would argue about the quality of football witnessed in Qatar.
It was a World Cup of surprises. Nothing spices up a tournament like a stunning result (Saudi Arabia 2 Argentina 1; Japan 2 Spain 1; Morocco 2 Belgium 0; Morocco 1 Portugal 0... take your pick).
Living up to expectations
But it was also a World Cup that lived up to expectations in many ways. Mbappe was tipped to be one of the stars. He certainly was. It was just his misfortune that he was pitted – in the game that mattered most – against possibly the biggest star of all the World Cups.
For all those goals of Mbappe, the golden boot, and that hat-trick in the final, which single-handedly allowed France to breathe and hope, the Qatar World Cup will always be known as Messi’s World Cup. Nobody would grudge him that. Has anybody entertained the world for so long and so enchantingly the way he has?
Perhaps not since India won the cricket World Cup in 2011 at home have so many people wanted one team to triumph – primarily for one man – in a major international tournament. Tendulkar had achieved just about everything with a cricket bat. He was even praised by Sir Don Bradman. But, he hadn’t won the World Cup. It was his last chance.
And India won, beating Sri Lanka in the final, that too on Tendulkar’s home ground in Mumbai, to regain the World Cup after a gap of 28 years. The great man himself made only 18, but he was the tournament’s second highest-scorer and had two hundreds.
After the final, one got the first glimpse of Virat Kohli’s commendable communication skills. “He has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, it was time we carried him,” he said of the Indian players carrying Tendulkar on their shoulders during the victory lap.
Messi’s burden has been no less. Argentina’s population may be less than four per cent of India’s, but football is a far more global sport than cricket. And Messi has fans all over the world. In our time, only the other Argentine great, Diego Maradona, has perhaps been loved as much.
It was, of course, Maradona who last took the World Cup home to Argentina, in 1986. Just as that Argentine team was built around him, the one in Qatar was more about Messi.
Maradona, however, was only 25 when he landed in Mexico for the World Cup as Argentina’s captain. He would go on to play in two more. For Messi, this was the last chance.
He had come very close in 2014. He took Argentina all the way to the final, which was won by Germany through a goal scored by Mario Gotze in extra-time. Messi was named the tournament’s best player.
Messi had all those league titles, the Ballon d’Or awards, the golden shoes and golden balls, Copa America and all those mesmerising goals too, but he didn’t have the cup that mattered most in football. That was why he decided to come back after announcing his retirement from international football in 2016.
It was evident that he took that decision after the disappointment of losing the Copa America final to Chile that year; he had missed a penalty in the shootout. He also hadn’t won any significant tournament with Argentina even at that time (his first Copa America triumph came only last year).
A couple of months after he stunned the world, Messi reversed his decision, much to the relief of Argentina and the rest of the world. But it wasn’t a big surprise, really. You don’t retire at 29.
Two years later, Messi led Argentina at the World Cup in Russia. But he was in for another disappointment as Argentina lost to France 3-4 in the round of 16. Who would have thought that the two teams would produce another high-scoring thriller four years later and that too in the title clash?
The Qatar finale has been described by many as the greatest World Cup final ever. Some, including those who have played at the World Cup, have called it the best football game ever. That may be debatable, but in our living memory, we may struggle to think of another final like the one we were fortunate to watch on December 18.
Messi had to score in the final. He did, twice in fact. He had also scored in Argentina’s 3-0 victory in the semifinal against Croatia. But it was the way he set up the team’s third goal in that game -- for Julian Alvarez -- that showed his genius.
He was proving, for the umpteenth time, that he was no ordinary mortal. It may be safe to say that the world may not see another player like him.