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The G.O.A.T.

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The bright beauty of the Lusail Stadium feels almost in the middle of nowhereness. And it’s in that stadium, France came out of nowhere, after being outplayed for 80 minutes, to launch a comeback that would be remembered after decades.

It’s in the same Lusail Stadium that the footballing gods finally smiled on the genius of Lionel Messi, who along with his band of ‘muchahos’, takes the World Cup back to Argentina after 1986

This makes no sense. Messi, at the age of 35, did what few would have expected of him. He had lost a lot of speed and was always surrounded by players as soon as he got the ball. On top of that, this Argentina side were far from perfect, with several gaping holes. However, they had one thing which no other team had, Lionel Messi. 

For over a decade, the Argentine has been touted as a candidate for the title of the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ (G.O.A.T.). And what Messi did in Qatar has surely got him the title. Make no mistakes; what we saw in the last month might never be repeated in our lifetime. 

It is a story we see in Hollywood thriller movies with the protagonist winning at the last possible moment to get the audience on their feet and leave their opponents in utter shock. 

However, the story, which ended on a high, has seen several lows, shocks and heartbreaks starting more than 16 years back. And we take you to the impressive journey that took Lionel Messi across four continents, a distance of more than 36,000 kilometres and a total of 26 matches and four heartbreaks. 

FIFA World Cup 2006- A star is born 

In 2006, Argentina arrived with a solid quad boasting the likes of Hernan Crespo, Carlos Tevez, 

Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Roberto Ayala. However, there was also an 18-year-old Messi in that squad. The teenager was making a name for himself in Barcelona and was regarded as a future star. 

However, he was not a guaranteed starter and spent the entirety of the first match against Ivory Coast on the bench. However, in the second match, with Argentina leading 3-0 against Serbia & Montenegro, head coach Jose Pekerman sent him onto the field in the 75th minute.

Messi finally had a chance, and it just took 13 minutes for him to prove why Pekerman’s decision was right as he assisted Crespo for Argentina’s fourth goal. With two wins in their opening games, Pekeramn altered his side for the final match against the Netherlands and gave Messi his first World Cup start.

The match was dull as both teams had already qualified and played out a goalless draw. In the round of 16 against Mexico, he was named on the bench but was sent on later as Argentina closed the game with a 2-0 lead.

For their match against Germany, which they lost on penalties, Messi remained an unused substitute.

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FIFA World Cup 2010- Germany break Argentinian hearts 

By the time the next World Cup came, Lionel Messi was one of the best players in the world. He was the star of the famed Barcelona tiki-taka side that had become the first team to win six trophies in a single season. On top of that, Argentina were coached by none other than Diego Maradona, the star of their 1986 title win. 

By then, a group of young talented players had also emerged in the national team setup. The group included players such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel de Maria, Nicolas Otamendi, Sergio Romero, Javier Pastore, and Messi. In fact, Messi, de Maria and Otamendi also played in the 2022 World Cup.

Their start to the World Cup campaign was as smooth as it could get. La Albiceleste scored seven and conceded just one goal. Mexico awaited them in the round of 16 yet again, like in 2006, and Argentina triumphed over their North American rivals. Messi 

It was a repeat of 206 as they faced Germany in the quarter-final. Maradona’s men were gunning for revenge. However, with more than 64,00 people watching inside the Cape Town Stadium, Germany put their opponent to the sword carving them open. The Germans scored four past Argentina.

It was a tournament top forget for Messi, who provided just one assist and failed to score even a single goal. 

FIFA World Cup 2014- Messi and Argentina falter at final stage 

The 2014 version of Lionel Messi was something no team in the world wanted to face. The Argentine, by then, was already considered by many to be the G.O.A.T. He had broken a load of records and was coming into the World Cup with the sole intention of winning it.

However, the job was challenging as other top contenders, such as Brazil, Germany, and Spain, were vying for the title. Though Messi was a man on a mission, he got down to work from the start. In his first two matches, the forward would score the winning goals helping Argentina earn an additional four points. Even in his final game, he would score a brace that gave them a close 3-2 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

By the time the knockout stages came, opponents of Argentina had one solo motto; stop Messi no matter what. And thus, the team started to man-mark him with two, sometimes three players. While this helped nullify his performance to an extent, it caused other problems for the rivals.

In marking Messi, the defence left players such as Gonzalo Higuaín and Angel de Maria free, eventually hurting them. Argentina won their round-of-16 match against Switzerland and the quarter-final against Belgium with goals from de Maria and Higuaín. 

Their next match came against the Netherlands, a goalless affair for 120 minutes. Thus followed the penalty shootouts where Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved two spot kicks to help Argentina reach their first final in 24 years. 

It appeared as if destiny was smiling on its favourite child Messi. Despite winning it all at the club level, international trophies had eluded Messi. And now he was in his first World Cup final, aiming to create history. Germany was standing in his team’s way, a team that had given them so much pain in recent years.

Both teams had chances to score but failed to do so in 90 minutes. It appeared as if the match was headed towards another penalty shootout before the game witnessed its first and only goal. Unfortunately for Messi, it was Mario Gotze whose neat finish gave Germany their fourth title. FIFA adjudged Messi to be the tournament’s best player, but it couldn’t make up for the loss. 


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FIFA World Cup 2018- Anther champion another loss 

Lionel Messi was 31 when the 2018 World Cup started, and many thought it would be his last chance to get his name on the trophy. However, Argentina’s squad could have been better, with several weaknesses. But like always, the team had Messi, which kept them in the game. 

And things went downhill after the first match as the two-time champions were held to a 1-1 draw by Iceland. This meant that their second match against Croatia was instrumental. However, at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, the Europeans produced one of their best displays at the World Cup to thrash Argentina 3-0. 

This came as a shock as the attacking brilliance of Messi and Co failed to find a way past the Vatreni’s defence. The defeat left their chances of elimination hanging by a thread. Argentina needed to win their last match. And with their backs against the wall, Messi brought his best, scoring their opener and helping his team win the match 2-1 and finish second in the group.

However, failure to top the group meant they were handed the most challenging match in France. The French were, on paper, one of the best sides stacked with talent all across the pitch. And Les Blues started the game on the front foot earning a penalty which Antoine Griezmann duly converted. Argentina, though undeterred, came back in the match, scoring two goals, the latter assisted by Messi. 

Then came that out-of-the-world goal from Benjamin Pavard that ignited the French, who went on to add two more goals within 11 minutes. Messi did create another goal in injury time, but it was too late, and Argentina returned home with Messi failing to get his name on the trophy once again. 


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FIFA World Cup 2022- The G.O.A.T 

By the time the next World Cup came, Lionel Messi had seen the worst phase of his career. He had seen Barcelona suffer a remarkable comeback at the hands of Liverpool and an 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich. On top of that, the financial situation at Barcelona was so precarious that he had to leave the club ultimately, a move once unthinkable and join Paris Saint Germain.

Messi was still among the best players in the world but nowhere near his best. And at the age of 35, many thought it would become easier to neutralise him in a game.

These fears were further compounded when Argentina, in their first match, suffered a 2-1 loss against Saudi Arabia. This was one of the most shocking upsets in FIFA World Cup history. The loss couldn’t have come at a worse time, as it looked like any chance of Messi winning the World Cup were all but gone.

What followed next is something that will always be part of football folklore. Messi, with his back against the wall, Messi came fighting hard. In their second match against Mexico, Messi scored one and assisted the other to help Argentina get all three points. With this, he became the first player to assist a goal in five different World Cups (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018, and 2022).

Their final game against Poland was not Messi’s best, and Wojciech Szczesny saved his penalty. However, two second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez ensured they qualified for the next stage. 

Before the game against Poland, Messi had never scored in a World Cup knockout game. He failed to break this duck in the last four World Cups. However, this was a different Messi who was ready to do anything to get his name on the trophy, even if that meant scoring in the knockouts.

His goal came in the 35th minute of the match, breaking his duck and taking him past Diego Maradona’s tally of eight World Cup goals. Next came the Netherlands, who they had defeated back in 2014. 

The Dutch had an impressive defence, which was a big challenge for Messi. However, the 35-year-old was everywhere in the match and, in the 35th minute, produced a no-look magical assist to give them the lead. He would then add another in the 73rd minute after converting a penalty. 

The Netherlands staged a late comeback, but Emiliano Martinez made two brilliant saves to help them win the match and keep Messi’s World Cup dream alive. 

In the semi-final, they came against Croatia, a team who had been partially responsible for their elimination in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The Croatian golden generation, who had made a run to the final, were making their own last run at the World Cup title.

They had just defeated favourites Brazil in the previous round. However, Messi ran through the Croatian defence like a hot knife through butter. After opening their scoring a penalty, Messi bamboozled his way past talented defender Josko Gvardiol to create another magical assist for Julain Alvarez’s second and Argentina’s third goal. 

And Unlike before Messi didn’t falter at the last stage instead he became immortal, the G.O.A.T.

Saumy Deepak Tripathi
A Bayern Munich fan who is deeply in love with football statistics. Has a soft spot for goalkeepers! (well only he knows why). You’ll find him vibing on 70’s classic songs and spends an abnormal amount of time cooking.

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