Lionel Messi’s World Cup story is almost over but, whatever the ending, I know things are going to be much less pleasant without him.
Whatever happens in Sunday’s final, which will be his last game on this world stage, Messi’s performances in Qatar have cemented his place in the hearts of football fans around the world.
There was a beautiful moment after Argentina’s victory over Croatia in the semi-finals, when a journalist told Messi that he made an impact on everyone’s life, and that’s more important than the result against France and his first victory in the World Cup.
She was absolutely right. People always tell me how much I talk about Messi, but I don’t apologize for that, and I never will, because watching him has given me so much joy – almost two decades of absolute pleasure in fact .
He’s 35 now, and we don’t have much time left, so let’s savor every second.
It’s not just about his goals and assists
Messi has played six games at this World Cup and he was man of the match in four of them.
But it’s not just his five goals or three assists that have made him stand out in this tournament, it’s the little things he does – like when he’s trapped by three or four players and you think, well, he won’t come out there… but he does, and he does it repeatedly.
I’ve said many times that I consider him the greatest player to ever play the game, and I’ve never attributed that solely to his scoring stats, as staggering as they are – it’s because of his vision, his conscience and his decision-making.
It really does look like he’s playing like he’s watching the game from above at the same time, but even that doesn’t really do his genius justice.
Each time he has played in this World Cup, the public cannot take their eyes off him: as soon as he recovers the ball, the whole stadium collectively holds its breath. They get up and wait for his magic, and he always delivered.
There were so many jaw-dropping moments, like his brilliant dribbling and precision passing to score a goal against the Dutch, or the perfect first touch and strike to score against Mexico, which overturned the fortunes of the Argentina in this tournament.
Then there was his incredible assist for Julian Alvarez in the semi-finals, when he upset Josko Gvardiol and left him utterly perplexed in his wake.
You wonder ‘wow’ and you wonder how Messi can do this to one of the strongest and fastest defenders in the world, but even then he still thinks about what comes next and chooses Alvarez, and the place, you work out how the heck he saw it.
The “wow” factor is what matters
Messi has shown for many years now that he is a truly extraordinary player, but I think even watching him at this tournament you would realize he is special and better than anyone else in the modern game.
When we make comparisons like that, sometimes we get a little caught up in scoring goals, which is great for me because it makes me come across as a better player than I was.
If that were the yardstick, I’d be a bit better than Diego Maradona, which is obviously nonsense because he practically played a different sport.
It’s the same with the Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate now. Their numbers are quite similar, in terms of goals, but I’d say Messi has the biggest ‘wow factor’.
Ronaldo has it too, when he scores a big goal, and Kylian Mbappe is the same with his explosive accelerations, but neither of them can do what Messi can do.
Messi will beat four or five men in a small space and pass it from just five yards, or see a pass no one else makes and deliver it with the perfect weight.
He did all of that in this tournament, as he has done throughout his career.
Some people were surprised by his form here, as they thought he was struggling at Paris St-Germain, but that’s not the case.
I watch every PSG game, because I love watching him play, and this season he’s been incredibly brilliant – so he’s entered this World Cup in absolutely fantastic shape.
He doesn’t have that surge of acceleration he had in his prime anymore, but he still has his natural ability, the kind of raw talent that’s hard for us normal human beings to understand, and he’s also retained the incredible drive and determination that have kept him at the top for so long.
Why Argentina in 2022 looks a lot like 1986
One of the ways Messi is unique as a player is that you just see him walk away from the action and stand in areas where he doesn’t receive the ball for a while.
You wonder what he’s doing – is he assessing everything that’s going on and working out everyone’s positions, or is he just resting?
He always has, but it happens much more now than during his days under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, when he was more active in pressuring the opposition.
It’s clear that Argentina have found a way of playing that allows them to choose their moments in such a concerted tournament, and it reminds me so much of the way their side worked when they won the 1986 World Cup.
This team was so tough and uncompromising with people like Oscar Ruggeri and Jose Luis Brown at full-back, and Julio Olarticoechea and Jorge Burruchaga in midfield, but also had a great striker and an exceptionally smart man, Jorge Valdano.
Likewise, this 2022 Argentina side are professional across the board, without many other truly world-class players, but they have a brilliant centre-forward, thanks to the emergence of Alvarez.
And they can rely on Messi’s genius, of course, just like Argentina did with Maradona before him – and there are obviously a lot of similarities between these two.
Longevity is a factor when choosing your goat
It’s always fun to talk about who is the greatest player of all time – or GOAT – because everyone has a different opinion, but I think you can only really judge it in your own life and from after what you saw.
I can’t count Pelé, only because I haven’t really seen him play, other than when I was nine and he played at the 1970 World Cup, so Maradona is the only other candidate for me.
It’s remarkable that the two greatest players of all time – well, of my time – are both from the same country, both left-footed, both small – and they dribble and do all those sorts of things amazingly different.
It’s always difficult to compare players of different generations because the game changes so much – for example, Maradona was kicked constantly, and he also played on horrible pitches.
While at Barcelona I played with him for a Rest of the World side at Wembley in 1987 as part of the Football League centenary celebrations. Everyone’s jaw dropped when he walked into our locker room – we were all in awe of him.
When we went out for our warm-up, Maradona took a ball and juggled it to the halfway line before throwing it about 50 yards in the air – and when it came straight down he threw it back.
He did it about 12 times and hardly had to move. I remember telling the other Barça players about it when I returned to Spain and we all tried. The best anyone did was three, with a bunch sprint at the end.
Like Messi he was a staggering talent and in many ways they are both so equal but you have to remember Maradona was at his best for maybe just seven years due to his off the pitch issues .
Longevity has to count in your overall summary of who’s the best – so given the success he’s had at club level and more recently at international level, it’s hard to put anyone above Messi right now.
One of the reasons I think he is playing so well in Qatar is because he has already won a trophy with Argentina, the 2021 Copa America, which seems to have eased his back with expectations at home.
Of course, he still wants to win a World Cup – and I can’t think of a better way to end this tournament.
Gary Lineker was talking to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar