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Messi's last dance: There will be tears as the GOAT says goodbye to the World Cup

16:00 GMT+3 21/11/2022
Lionel Messi Argentina Last Dance HIC 16:9
The Argentina captain's final chance to win the World Cup could also be his best, with his team arriving in Qatar on a 36-game unbeaten run.

Just like millions of other sports fans across the world, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni was moved by Roger Federer's farewell to tennis. It's not easy saying goodbye to a 'GOAT', and there wasn't a dry eye in London's O2 Arena on the evening of September 23.

"Everyone was emotional and everyone was thinking, 'He's not going to be here anymore, he’s not going to play anymore.'" Scaloni said.

"How many of us would like to still see Federer play tennis? It was wonderful to watch him play... And the same thing will happen with Messi."

Football's 'GOAT' certainly won't call time on his club career after Qatar 2022, but it will be the last chance to see him play in a World Cup.

Messi's already said so himself, admitting that he's "counting down the days" until the tournament gets under way.

His excitement is understandable, of course. Argentina will arrive in Qatar on a 36-match unbeaten run which includes a triumphant 2021 Copa America campaign that culminated in them beating bitter rivals Brazil to take the title for the first time in 28 years.

That collective victory in Rio was also a personal triumph for Messi. He's been dogged for years by ridiculous allegations that his claim on the title of the greatest player of all time was discredited by his lack of a major trophy at international level.

The Copa America, then, represented a release, as so touchingly underlined by the way in which he collapsed to the turf in tears when the full-time whistle blew at the Maracana.

He didn't score that night but the tournament belonged to him, with Messi winning both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball having been directly involved in nine of his country's 12 goals, netting five himself.

"I couldn't quit the national team without winning something," he admitted to Diario Sport afterwards.

His determination to land a major honour took its toll, though, with the mental and physical strain he endured exacerbated by his tumultuous Barcelona exit just over a month later.

He was, as Scaloni revealed, also"hit hard" by Covid-19 – all of which helps explain why his 2022-23 at Paris Saint-Germain was so underwhelming.

He certainly didn't look like himself within a team with countless problems, both in the dressing room and at boardroom level, and was even labelled a "fraud" by ex-PSG winger Jerome Rothen after the Champions League loss to Real Madrid earlier this year.

The real Messi has since returned, though. Having a proper pre-season played a huge part in what has been a sensational start to the 2022-23 campaign.

However, he has also benefited from a change of mindset, admitting himself that he returned from his summer holiday with a different, more focused and determined attitude.

The World Cup obviously helped in that regard. His eyes have been fixed firmly on the prize for months now. He wanted to be in the best possible shape for Qatar because he knows that this is a golden opportunity for the national team, and himself.

The pressure may be off in terms of winning a major international trophy, but even Messi can feel the tension mounting. The World Cup just means more, and Argentina have got a real shot at glory here.

"There is a bit of anxiety and nerves," he confessed in an interview with Star+. "It's the last one, how are we going to do? Yes, on the one hand, we can't wait for it to arrive. But, on the other hand, we're scared because we want it to go well."

Indeed, Messi is acutely aware that his final chance to win the World Cup could also be his best. He's obviously played in more talented national teams, but never one so united.

As he said himself, the 2010 squad, led by Diego Maradona, was "spectacular" but mentally fragile, and "went crazy" in the 4-0 quarter-final capitulation against Germany.

Argentina were beaten again by the same side in the final four years later, and that extra-time defeat still stings. Messi maintains that they deserved to win.

The 2018 campaign, meanwhile, was utterly chaotic from start to finish, with Argentina only qualifying thanks to a final-round hat-trick from Messi against Ecuador.

His performance that night once again made a mockery of the long-held view that he never turned up for his country, that he was somehow incapable of leading a struggling side to victory. Indeed, former Argentine forward Hernan Crespo spoke for many when he said "Messi is not Maradona."

But then, as the legendary Jorge Valdano pointed out, Messi has achieved a level of sustained excellence in his career that his former team-mate simply wasn't capable of, for a variety of reasons.

"Maradona was Maradona sometimes," the World Cup winner famously mused, "Messi is Maradona every day."

It's also a myth that the team that Maradona so sensationally inspired to victory in Mexico 86 was substandard. The No.10 dominated a World Cup like no other player in history, but he was ably supported by a string of top-class players, Valdano included.

Despite their poor preparations, Argentina were also a true team, thanks in no small part to Maradona's powers of inspiration, meaning there are some parallels with Scaloni's current crop of players.

Again, it may not be a side full of superstars but it lacks neither experience (Messi, Angel Di Maria, Nicolas Otamendi) nor quality (Paulo Dybala, Lautaro Martinez, Rodrigo De Paul).

More importantly, Scaloni has got them working both together, and for their captain. As goalkeeperEmiliano Martinez said after the Finalissima win over Italy, "We are all lions who fight for him."

Messi's mere presence on the pitch lifts all those around him, as underlined by his two-goal salvo as a substitute in the recent friendly win over Jamaica.

"Even in just a couple of minutes," Nicolas Tagliafico said, "Messi makes the team play in a different way."

De Paul added that "the Messi thing no longer surprises us. We just hope it continues like this."

There's certainly no reason why Argentina can't go all the way. They have a strong group led by a man determined to make the most of his last dance on the game's grandest stage.

Scaloni is right when he says that "Whether Leo wins or not, he has already demonstrated that he is the best in history – even his opponents recognise it."

But that will only make his departure all the more emotional. The GOAT is about to say goodbye to the World Cup. However it ends, there will be tears.