Lionel Messi: an emblem of the ephemeral fragility of human beauty | World Cup 2022

IIf you have tears, prepare to save them for Tuesday at the earliest. It’s almost unbearable to watch Messi these days. There’s this thing that we’ve been watching, discussing and caring about all our lives, something we’ve invested an unreasonable part of our soul into, and he’s the best we’ve seen on this thing, and every Game could be the last we see him. But the end was postponed by another game.

You can add caveats to that. Those over 50 will have their memories. Messi won’t stop the moment his World Cup is over, but this phase is clearly the most important for him. Add in a Ligue Un title or two, even a Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain, and it’s barely written in his legacy. Add in the world championship and that last quibble about him will go away. Each of his games at this World Cup is a symbol of the ephemeral fragility of human beauty, of the eternal passage of time.

This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years, the Guardian has covered the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is compiled on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football homepage for those who want to delve deeper into issues off the field.

The Guardian’s coverage goes well beyond what’s happening on the field. Support our investigative journalism today.

Photo: Caspar Benson

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No wonder the Argentine camp is constantly so tense. No wonder there is so much longing. No wonder there is such a tense relationship between the team and the fans. But what has never been clear is whether this emotional energy supports Argentina or suppresses it. How many times can you go to the well? How many times can you exit games emotionally exhausted and pick yourself back up?

Patterns are always there when you look for them. For Argentina, it’s not just about Messi, it’s about the era, the spirit he represents. In 1995, José Pékerman led Argentina to their first U20 World Cup in Qatar, beginning an unprecedented run of five wins in seven tournaments. The hope, even the expectation, had been that this golden run would result in success at senior level, but Argentina won nothing between the 1993 and 2021 Copas America. Only three players who were part of those youth triumphs remain in the squad: Messi, who won in 2005, and Papu Gómez and Ángel Di María, who won in 2007.

Still, the influence of Pékerman remains, who believed in developing not just a player but a person and whose approach was far more holistic than simply focusing on football. It was he who chose Messi as national coach for his first senior World Cup in 2006, while current coach, Lionel Scaloni, and two of his assistants, Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel, were part of Pékerman’s squad that won the under-20th World Cup in 1997 in Malaysia. Qatar began this era of Argentine football and the dream, 27 years later, will reach its glorious apotheosis in Qatar.

But that requires inspiration from Messi. He’s always been a player who works at his own rhythm and as he’s gotten older the tendency to run around casually assessing opponents for weaknesses has increased. Eight years ago, at the beginning of his reincarnation as a pragmatist, Louis van Gaal successfully defeated Messi in a World Cup semi-final using Nigel De Jong as man-marker. But Messi is more elusive these days, a leprechaun who hovers on the periphery of the game until the moment is right. You can tag a man; much more difficult to mark a ghost.

Messi celebrates with his Argentinian teammates.
Messi celebrates with his Argentinian teammates. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

There’s no point in talking about his low running stats: he’s sui generis, a player who can only function at an extremely low pace. That may mean his teammates have to compensate for his almost total lack of defensive work, but it also means the opponent has to adapt; He is not where he should be, often barely engaging in attacks until suddenly deadly.

Was something going on when Messi picked up the ball after 35 minutes? Not much, it seemed, not for mortals. But a brief pause was enough for Nathan Aké to throw and create an opening through which Messi slid a through ball, absurd in concept but perfect in execution. Before anyone even registered the possibility of an opportunity, Messi had found Nahuel Molina with a pass so perfectly weighted that the right-back was almost forced to score.

Even with the Jack and the Beanstalk aesthetic of Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert’s attempt to upset him, a penalty would have been a mundane way of winning the game, contrary to the way this Argentina always played on abyss lived. For them, the heart only belongs in the mouth at this tournament. Argentina could have even won it easily considering Messi unblocked the Dutchman twice in the second half simply because his teammates’ clumsiness let him down.

But asking what he could do on a better team is beside the point. That Diego Maradona inspired a team that was far from the best in the world was his great glory. Something similar, at the very end of the era that began 27 years ago in Doha, could still be Messis.

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