Doha, Qatar – “Now is all” is a trademark phrase used by Qatar 2022 organisers. On Sunday, it could not be more apt.
The stage for a grand farewell is set at Lusail Stadium. The audience numbers will be touching 89,000. Billions across the world will be watching.
On paper and the pitch, Argentina will take on France in the World Cup 2022 final at Lusail Stadium. But for the majority, it has been advertised as a Messi show. He’s slated to be the conductor of football’s greatest show reaching its finale, and the boy from Rosario reaching the pinnacle of his career.
That’s what the script says, at least.
Sunday’s culmination of the first World Cup to take place in the Middle East will be Messi’s last outing at the tournament. It’s not so much that he wants to leave that indelible mark on this tournament – and emulate the great Diego Maradona – it’s that he, and the millions following him across the world, want the World Cup to be Messi’s World Cup, his last, his best, his only.
The episodes preceding this finale have certainly highlighted that storyline and pointed to that very happy ending (not for France, of course).
Lionel Messi keeps etching his name into the World Cup history books 📚 pic.twitter.com/ebB5cU3oZ9
— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 13, 2022
Messi scored in Argentina’s first match at Qatar 2022 – a shock loss to Saudi Arabia.
Messi scored in the most recent – a stunning humbling of last year’s finalists Croatia.
In between, he scored three more and provided an assist that not only re-affirmed his status, his stature and his giant-like presence but also sent non-believers to put their pot of gold next to the blue and white stripes.
“It’s only Messi, wallah (by God), it’s only Messi,” said Mohammad Nahawi, a Brazil supporter left in awe of Messi after the Argentinian’s spectacle against Croatia in the semifinal.
“I support Brazil but I love Messi. This guy, wallah. It’s 99.9 percent him and 0.01 percent the rest of the players [on the team]. Nobody can stop this guy.”
Messi’s is a tragic story, one of incomplete dreams, unfulfilled desires and of heights he dreams of. But for Sunday, the stage is set, the script is written and the grass is being watered. It may very well be the that dream will be complete, the desires fulfilled, the heights achieved.
The ball dances to his tune, so should the sport. But it hasn’t yet. Not until he lifts the trophy that matters the most, to him, to the country, to those billions wearing the number 10 stripes and singing his name across Rosario, Kerala, Dhaka, Bangkok, and Doha.
Lionel Messi with the assist of the tournament.pic.twitter.com/09eQcFQIWC
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) December 13, 2022
“Pfft, no words for him, he’s Messi,” Dong, who travelled to Qatar from China to watch Messi play, said. “He’s been just.. so perfect. And he’s showed us those god-like moments. You can’t stop him, no way. Argentina will be champions and Messi will lift the trophy.”
There has been an extraordinary demand for Messi’s number 10 shirts as he powered his way to the final. It was sold out in some countries and running low in others.
The demand was such that Adidas issued a statement saying the company was “working to get more jerseys to fans so they can celebrate an incredible journey for the national team”.
“He’s the special one, the best one, the crazy one, call him what you will, he’s the one,” said Federico who was born in Rosario, the city that gave the world Messi.
“Nobody can take the ball from him, he’s just in that place right now. He’s having his best World Cup and we’re so proud of him and what he’s done so far.”
As the final whistle blew in the semifinal against Croatia, Messi stood alone at the halfway line on the pitch. He looked up, looked down, and hunched over before going into a bear hug with the substitutes.
He realised he was within touching distance of fulfilling his dream, the dream of a nation and the millions wearing the blue and white stripes with 10 on the back.
France have already lost once in this tournament. But they want to become only the third side to win back-to-back world cups (Italy 1934 and 1938, Brazil 1958 and 1962) so a win will not be handed over on a plate.
It can’t just be about Messi at Lusail Stadium on Sunday. But having seen the trail he’s left behind in the last month or so, and how the peacefulness of a late November evening was destroyed with utter disdain by Argentina fans celebrating his goal against Mexico, it might very well be.