How can I sum all that up?
First, as a World Cup fan: Qatar 2022 is finally over, but I hope (and believe) that the unpeeling of all the layers of the onion of human rights abuses that have surrounded it aren’t done yet. I doubt the bidding process for 2026 was any less iffy but at least the existence of the tournament itself won’t leave such a sour taste in the mouth. The idea of actually attending seems palatable again. And I feel I should try to get one in before Saudi Arabia 2030.
Second: I’ve lived in Argentina for twelve and a half years, and have followed Argentine football for twenty now (wow, I’m getting old). I’ve been covering it, through blogging, paid articles or podcasts/media appearances, for sixteen years. And I started doing that because I fell in love with it and wanted to give it a wider audience. That never quite went the way I’d dreamed it might, but football’s been a huge part of my relationship with my adopted home. And central to that, but also somehow slightly other at times, is the fact that way back when I was at university in Manchester, and following Barcelona (my cousin’s club) regularly at a local that always put La Liga on if I asked nicely and there was no English football it clashed with, I was standing at the bar when the youth product I’d read a tiny bit about came off the bench, took a pass from Ronaldinho and lobbed the goalkeeper, had it disallowed for offside … and then did it again from an onside position a few minutes later. That was before I started writing about football, but rather by accident I’ve been following Lionel Messi’s first-team career right from the very start as well.
I’ve always said that if Argentina failed to win the World Cup during Messi’s playing career, the AFA would have only themselves to blame. 2006 was too early for them but let’s save a mention for José Pekerman, whose youth team work starting in the mid-1990s sowed the seeds for this win (among the alumni from his teams, as well as Messi and Di María, were Lionel Scaloni, Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel). In 2010 Julio Grondona sacrificed any chance Argentina had of being competitive – and it would have been a great chance – by deciding they’d go to the World Cup not only without a proper manager, but with a squad picked by someone who thought Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso didn’t belong in the team but that Martín Palermo deserved some game time and Ariel Garcé was worth a place in the squad, among other ridiculous decisions. 2014 was the big chance, and would have been so sweet. And with lovely, lovely Alejandro Sabella at the helm, too. And since then it’s felt like a race against time. Jorge Sampaoli felt, with an outsider’s gaze, like it might work when he was first announced … and within what felt like five minutes it was abundantly obvious it was going to be a total, raving shitshow. By this point the AFA had reached the stage that no one worth giving the job to (in public opinion) wanted to work with them, and in any case they couldn’t afford anyone. When they sacked Sampaoli they were also still paying off Edgardo Bauza’s contract (remember Edgardo Bauza?!). So they gave the job to – literally – the only head coach on the men’s side of their national teams organisation who hadn’t been a Sampaoli appointment, and who therefore hadn’t left with him. Give it Scaloni til end of t’international break. And then til end of next one. And the 2019 Copa América ended in disappointment but there seemed to be something happening, and then … and then.
It can sometimes be hard to remember that we’re not living at the end of history (especially in days when climate and civilisation sometimes seem to be collapsing all around us), and that the world and even our interests don’t revolve around our own personal narrative, but following Argentina during the time I’ve followed them has been a roller coaster, and the knowledge that he’ll turn 39 during the next World Cup meant this always felt like the last chance, even though Argentina should still have a strong team well into the future. And the whole time there’s been the sense that while Messi didn’t need the World Cup for his legacy, not really, not for those of us who know it’s daft to judge any player on (if they’re lucky) seven matches every four years rather than fifty-odd each season, he needed it for him. There’s a Netflix series following the team through last year’s Copa América win, and it’s intercut with bits about Messi’s life and career (they should have made it two separate series really; it would have worked better). In one interview Cesc Fàbregas lists all the things Messi’s won, and tells us Messi once talked about it with him and told him, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got a World Cup.’ And Cesc, perhaps because he’s Catalan, and thus has a very different relationship with the national team he represented, realised for the first time that all Messi’s really wanted all this time was to win something with Argentina. Lionel Messi is not my ideal role model (the only thing I have against him is that he seems to have never met someone whose money he’s not happy to be paid, and from what I can gather that seems to be down to his dad more than anything else, but it’s not a minor consideration given who some of those people are). But seeing the look on his face as he cradled the World Cup on the walk over to his teammates, I admit I welled up a bit. My girlfriend welled up, and you’d struggle to meet someone who cares less about football than my girlfriend. I’ve always said when asked that it’s ridiculous to talk about GOATs in a team sport with such wildly different roles all over the pitch and such leaps in standards from era to era, but right now, balls to it: he’s it. He’s the GOAT.
Third: if you go into a series of kicks from the penalty spot against a team with Emiliano Martínez in goal, be advised that while you may well have been told it’s a knife fight, it’s actually nuclear warfare, and that nicely polished Bowie knife isn’t going to get you very far.