ONDRIVE with Sham Samaroo
December 20, 2022
Each December, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of the King of Kings in a manger in Bethlehem. This December, not very far away in Qatar, Lionel Andrés Messi, a catholic, was crowned the king of soccer (football) in an atmosphere befitting a coronation: the most thrilling of World Cup finals. On soccer’s grandest stage, and the most important moment of his career, Messi delivered as only he could. Who writes this guy’s script? Is it divinely preordained? Hmm, I’ll let you ponder that.
In so many ways, this was his story: First man to score in every phase of a World Cup (group, round of 16, QF, SF, and Finals); first to repeat as tournament MVP; first on the goals and assists chart; most chances created (18); most WC appearances (26); most World Cup goals by an Argentinian. And finally (drum roll) that small matter of getting his hands on the FIFA World Cup trophy (30,875 carats of 18 karat gold) – coronation complete!
A thing of beauty, wrote Keats, is a joy forever, and Messi on the jazz is pure joy. So delicate is his touch, the man can stir tea with his foot. Against Croatia in the semis, Messi did a pirouette. Does this man think he is in his youth? The pirouette is one of the most difficult, most graceful, aesthetic moves in ballet. Yet Messi executed it perfectly, reminiscent of the Nutcracker’s Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy – a Christmas classic.
Perhaps influenced by the spirit of the season; by his proximity to Bethlehem, was the king of soccer giving thanks and praise to the King of Kings. At age 35, Messi is aware that the end is near approaching. That awareness can bring a letting go, and we saw him singing with the fans after each game. Such freedom can be rejuvenating too, and throughout the tournament, Messi seemed to have grown younger. I know that stretches the bounds of credibility. But this is just not any player, this is Messi.
In the semis, he had a hand in each of the three goals. But it took an indescribable piece of Messi magic to conjure up the third. He picked up the ball on the halfway line with Gvardiol, one of the best defenders in the game, on his heels. We thought, he’ll try to find some space or pass to a teammate. One thing for sure, Messi was not going to outrun Gvardiol, 15 years his junior. Would you believe it? That is precisely what he did, taking the youngster on one of his trademark runs from Christmas past. But Gvardiol is no rookie; he stayed on top of Messi. A stop-start and a shoulder shake followed the step over, all the while with the ball glued to his foot (the tea stirrer, remember), but still he couldn’t shake the young man. Then came the pirouette and that was all she wrote.
The finals went to a shootout but don’t for a minute think this was a close game, certainly not for the first 79 minutes. Argentina was all over France. It started with a penalty by king Messi, who else? The second goal, a magnificent finish by Di Maria, began with a sublime 45-degree pass from the king. France barely had a sniff in the entire half: Mbappi, the fewest of touches in a first half. Confused and confounded, Coach Deschamps made an unprecedented move substituting two players minutes before half time! Argentina was a runaway express train and France was the caboose.
Whatever strategy Deschamps plotted at half time, Scaloni read it like a book and the second half went the way of the first, only more so. In the press box sportswriters were already penning their stories, this game is over. But that man Mbappi, MIA for most of the game, came alive in the 80th minute to score twice in 97 seconds. The first one a penalty, the second a monster strike of pure athleticism and skill to blow the game wide open. Suddenly France was the hound and Argentina, the hunted. But king Messi returned in extra time to put Argentina ahead once more only to watch Montiel concede another penalty to France. You guessed it, Mbappi made no mistake.
This was Messi against the future in Mbappi, battling for control of the present. And the present belongs to king Messi. I am not one to compare players across eras simply because there are too many variables. But let’s get one thing clear: Messi did not need that trophy to secure a place among the pantheon of the greats. He is indisputably the best of his era; has been for a long time, and is as good as any player of any era. Could we see him in the USA in four years? Only the King of Kings knows the answer. As we rejoice with Messi and Argentina, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men [and women]!”
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.