He is ever so close again. Lionel Messi is just two games away from becoming a World Cup champion for the first time in his illustrious career at Qatar 2022. Can he emulate his fellow Argentine great, Diego Maradona, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer?
Not for the first time in the 2022 World Cup, the 35-year-old created a moment of magic to help Argentina take the lead in their dramatic quarter-final against the Netherlands when he provided a stunning pass through to team-mate Nahuel Molina, who took a touch and fired home to give his side the lead. It was just the latest divine intervention from the legendary forward.
Next up for Messi and Argentina is a tasty semi-final clash against the finalists from the 2018 edition, Croatia, who will provide a stern test once more. Croatia were the first team to make the semi-finals after they stunned the much-fancied Brazil 4-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw after extra-time.
The second team to make the semi-finals were Argentina, who also won a shoot-out, beating the Netherlands 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw after extra-time. The stage has, therefore, been set for Messi once more to see if he can deliver the trophy to his country in Qatar.
HAS MESSI WON A WORLD CUP BEFORE FOR ARGENTINA?
Sadly for Messi, he has yet to win a World Cup for Argentina. The closest he has come so far in his career was back in 2014 when his side lost in the final against Germany in what was a repeat of the 1990 final featuring Maradona. On that occasion, of course, Maradona and Argentina also came up short.
After the 2014 final in Brazil, Messi was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament after being the joint-third highest goal scorer, with four goals and an assist, while he also created the most chances of any individual player. That will have been of scant consolation given it was such a gut-wrenching defeat for him and his team-mates after so much expectation.
IS THIS HIS LAST WORLD CUP FOR ARGENTINA?
Messi has not announced that this will be his final World Cup for Argentina, but it would certainly be a big ask for him to return at the age of 39 to participate in the 2026 tournament in the USA, Canada and Mexico.
It is generally expected that this will be the final World Cup for Messi and his legendary rival Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Portugal side lost in the quarter-finals. For Ronaldo, this tournament has already proved to be a bitter disappointment after he was dropped ahead of Portugal’s last-16 match, with Morocco then sending them packing in the quarter-finals. Messi will be hoping for a sweeter conclusion to his stay in Qatar.
HOW MANY WORLD CUPS DID MARADONA WIN?
Messi will, of course, always be compared in some respects to fellow Argentina legend Maradona, who earned 91 caps for his country and scored 34 goals. Maradona played in four World Cups, including the victorious campaign in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. At that tournament, Maradona captained Argentina in inspired fashion and led them to victory over West Germany in the final. He also claimed the Golden Ball as the undisputed best player at the tournament.
But that was the only World Cup triumph of Maradona’s career as he came up short when widely fancied to go all the way at the 1990 edition in Italy. On that occasion, Argentina lost 1-0 to West Germany, the only goal being a controversial penalty scored by Andreas Brehme in the 85th minute in Rome.
Later, Maradona unexpectedly became the coach of Argentina in November 2008 and oversaw a less-than-successful campaign at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa before departing from his post at the end of the tournament.
WHAT HAS THE REACTION BEEN TO MESSI’S LATEST HEROICS?
Former England internationals Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand waxed lyrical about Messi after his sublime pass to put Argentina 1-0 ahead against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.
Messi somehow found a wonderful reverse pass to send through full-back Molina, who took a touch and fired home. Watching the replays at half-time in the BBC studio the panel was in awe of Messi’s pass.
“He [Lionel Messi] has been making a difference at the top level for the last 15 years,” said Ferdinand.
“When games need to be defined he is the one who takes on the responsibility. He is a phenomenal footballer. Whenever he gets the ball the whole stadium stands up.”
Lineker added: “I’ve always said it is like he watches the game from above whilst actually playing it.”
Sitting alongside them in the studio was former Manchester City and Argentina full-back Pablo Zabaleta. He explained that at this stage in his illustrious career, Messi is a different player, but no less dangerous.
“When I said I was confident before the game it was because we have Lionel Messi on the field. He is the only one that can really make things happen. His pass was unreal.
“Messi is 35 and coming to the end of his career but he is playing like a playmaker – that also makes him special because he doesn’t have the pace to come and get the ball and dribble past players. He is so clever and good with his vision. He has that quality to come and get the ball.”
Defender Nicolas Tagliafico has said: “He’s always been like this. He is the one who gives us that special advantage when we are on the pitch.
“We know we have Messi and it is a great source of motivation and hope because we all know that we can contribute and give our best. We are really happy to have Messi as our captain.
“With everyone’s support we are all working together to achieve our dreams, and it is the most beautiful thing to do it with Messi by our side.”