Men who stare at GOAT

Besides winning his first World Cup in 2022, Messi won his own personal battle of being considered the first among equals amidst fierce competition
Graphics by Varghese Kallada
Graphics by Varghese Kallada

QATAR: Often ranked as the best player in the world and rated by some in the sport as the greatest of all time, Lionel Messi allayed any doubts over the rightful place he inherits in the pecking order of football, with a stupendous World Cup victory over France in Qatar.

The global showpiece was the only silverware missing in his trophy cabinet and the 35-year-old rose to the occasion scoring two goals before converting a penalty in the shootout to cap a memorable tournament that culminated with him winning the Golden Ball for the second time.

The last 18 months have seen the stars aligned for both Messi and Argentina, with the Albicelestes captain leading his country to a series of momentous triumphs starting with the Copa America, where it prevailed over arch-rival Brazil in its own backyard.

That triumph ended a painstaking drought of 28 years dating back to 1993, and it was followed by a 3-0 thrashing of reigning European champion Italy in this year’s Finalissima at Wembley Stadium in London in June this year. And then came the biggest and most coveted prize of all with Argentina winning its third World Cup and first since 1986.

Graphics by Varghese Kallada; Text by Bhargav N

Messi’s relief at winning the blue-riband event was tangible with the monkey finally off his back and the last remaining stumbling block in his path to greatness being blown off the smithereens.

Contrast it with how Cristiano Ronaldo’s, Messi’s greatest and long-time rival for the “greatness tag”, campaign ended in a flood of tears after Portugal crashed out of the tournament with a 1-0 loss to rank outsider Morocco in the quarterfinals.

Ronaldo himself had a peripheral presence as he was left out of the starting XI, for the first time since 2008, in the Round of 16 match against Switzerland. The same fate befell him in the last 8 clash against the Atlas Lions and though he was brought on as a substitute early in the second-half, the 37-year-old’s truckload of tricks and wealth of experience couldn’t prevent his team from exiting the tournament.

The same was the case with Brazilian superstar Neymar whose hopes of laying his hands on the golden trophy for the first time were dashed yet again in a gut-wrenching penalty shootout defeat to Croatia in the quarterfinals. And much like Ronaldo, Neymar shed a copious amount of tears and impulsively announced that he may not feature in the next edition of the World Cup. It remains to be seen if the 30-year-old reconsiders his decision when the 2026 event comes around.

As for Kylian Mbappe, who has long been touted as Messi’s heir apparent on the global stage, the Frenchman has age on his side as he had just turned 24. Mbappe sizzled in the final scoring a hat-trick and must consider himself extremely unlucky not to have ended up winning his second World Cup in succession, a feat last managed by Pele back in 1962. Mbappe is already in possession of a slew of records and blessed with a wise head on young shoulders, he can aspire to go down in history as the sole occupant of the ‘G.O.A.T’ tag. But for now, it’s his teammate at Paris Saint-Germain and fellow striker Messi who can lay claim to that label.

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