Lionel Messi is the GOAT with or without a World Cup win for Argentina
Lionel Messi's mind was racing as he sat in MetLife Stadium on the night of June 26, 2016.
He had just missed the opening penalty in Argentina's shootout loss to Chile in the final of the Copa America.
It was a third consecutive defeat in a major international tournament decider for Messi, and a fourth overall.
He felt doomed, destined to disappoint in an Argentina jersey. Sergio Aguero had never seen his close friend so upset.
Messi knew how this latest loss would be portrayed: as proof that he simply couldn't deliver for Argentina; that he would never match Maradona; that he played better for Barcelona; and worse again, that he cared more about the Catalan club than his own country.
So, in the heat of the moment, while overwhelmed by a "huge sadness once again", Messi made the difficult decision to retire from international duty.
“I tried so hard to be a champion with Argentina, but it just hasn't happened," he told reporters. "I couldn’t do it.
"I think it’s best for me to retire, for everyone, for me and for many people who want it."
No Argentine really wanted him to leave, though.
Even the victorious Chile coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi of Argentina, was stunned by Messi's sudden announcement.
"Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they’ll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a football player to do what Messi has done," he said.
"My generation can’t compare him to [Diego] Maradona because of what Maradona did during our generation for Argentine soccer.
"But I think the best player ever played here today in the United States."
Almost inevitably, Argentines started a campaign to convince the captain to continue, with then-president Mauricio Macri publicly pleading with Messi to play on.
Meanwhile, a 15-year-old Enzo Fernandez posted an emotional open letter to Messi on his Facebook page.
"Do what you want, Lionel, but please think about staying. Stay and have fun," he wrote. "In a world of ridiculous pressures, they manage to take the most noble thing out of the game, the fun.
"Seeing you play with the light blue and white is the greatest pride in the world. Play for fun, because when you're having fun, you have no idea how much fun we have."
On Sunday night, Fernandez will start alongside Messi for Argentina in the 2022 World Cup final.
An awful lot has happened in the interim.
Despite reversing his retirement decision just a month after the Copa America in part because he had been touched by the public support, there was further disappointment in store for Messi at Russia 2018.
At that stage, it appeared his chance of ever winning a major trophy at senior international level had passed.
However, the appointment of Lionel Scaloni as Argentina coach changed everything.
He didn't just make the right tactical moves, he also generated a club-like team spirit that propelled the Albiceleste to victory in last year's Copa America in Brazil.
That triumph was obviously hugely significant for Messi on a personal level. It represented a release of relief as much as joy. A weight had been lifted. International football had become fun again.
"I really have been enjoying being with the national side in the last few years," the forward said ahead of Sunday's showdown with France in Lusail.
"To win the Copa America, to reach the World Cup with 36 games unbeaten, and then to finish that trajectory with a final is just incredible.
"I hope the people in Argentina enjoy themselves and what we are doing. They shouldn't doubt we are giving absolutely everything."
4 – Lionel Messi has become the first player to both score and assist in four separate World Cup matches (since the 1966 edition). Magical.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 13, 2022
2006 vs Serbia
2022 vs Mexico
2022 vs Netherlands
2022 vs Croatia pic.twitter.com/Qsh36wCuCj
Messi is certainly giving his all, which may sound like a strange thing to say about a player who spends a significant chunk of games walking.
However, while time may have taken away some of his pace, it's also "made Messi wise", as Jorge Valdano pointed out.
He has become even smarter, even more adept at making the most of his many other extraordinary gifts, meaning while he now "has less, he is giving more".
"Angry Messi", as Pablo Zabaleta has called him, has reminded Argentinians of peak Maradona. The quiet has become a sassy skipper.
Indeed, with the help of a supporting cast that Valdano compared to Ocean's 11, Messi has led Argentina to the final, despite suffering a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening game.
In the must-win meeting with Mexico, he broke the deadlock with a stunning strike from distance, and hasn't looked back.
Before this tournament, he had never scored a goal in the knockout stage of a World Cup. He's now got three, as well as two of the greatest assists the competition has ever seen.
His critics are running out of excuses to deny him the title of the greatest of all time. All they have left is the lack of a World Cup winner's medal.
That could change on Sunday night. But regardless of the result, Messi's status as the finest footballer in history is safe.
The debate is over. No player, not even Pele or Maradona, has ever played at such a consistent level of excellence for such a sustained period of time.
Out. Of. This. World. pic.twitter.com/GuAqxCRmeP— GOAL (@goal) December 16, 2022
Kylian Mbappe appears destined to enter the discussion in years to come but it will take well over a decade of genius to even come close to matching Messi.
Scaloni has mused that maybe Argentines are biased in viewing their inspirational skipper as the finest footballer in history.
But it's not just his own coaches, colleagues or countrymen who are presently singing his praises.
His opponents here in Qatar have been lining up to speak of the privilege of just sharing a field with Argentina's No.10.
Luka Modric saluted Messi's "greatness" after the semi-finals, while Keanu Baccus compared him to a "wax statue": "He looks fake on the field... It's surreal how good he actually is."
Josko Gvardiol was embarrassed by Messi in Lusail on Tuesday night and yet the outstanding Croatia defender gushed afterwards, "Today and tomorrow I will be able to tell the children that I marked Messi for 90 minutes."
Furthermore, France boss Didier Deschamps has conceded that even some of his compatriots would like to see Messi finish on the winning side on Sunday night, while he also has the support of some famous Brazilians.
Ronaldo says he would be happy for Messi if Argentina win, while Rivaldo says he deserves it, "for the person you are and for the wonderful football you have always played.
"God knows all things and will crown you this Sunday."
Messi is already the king, though. Whether he lifts the trophy or not, though, he will go down as the game's greatest.
His numbers are ridiculous, so many of his records unbreakable and, at the age of 35, he has illuminated a World Cup like few others before him.
He is presently in position to win both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. If he does, you can add an eighth Ballon d'Or into the mix too.
It's not just about the trophies, though. It's about the talent, the magic and the emotion.
One more chance 💙 pic.twitter.com/Nd15EXDYiK— GOAL (@goal) December 15, 2022
It takes a very special sportsman to bring people from every possible background together in awe and admiration. It takes a GOAT to make you forget about life for a while.
Argentina is a nation experiencing the harsh reality of an economic crisis and yet the people have been living a dream for the past month.
"No matter the results, there's something that no one can take from you, and it's the fact that you resonated with Argentinians, every single one," reporter Sofi Martinez told Messi after the semi-final win over Croatia.
"There's no kid who doesn't have your team shirt, no matter if it's fake, real or a made-up one.
"Truly, you made your mark in everyone's life. And that, to me is beyond winning any World Cup.
"No one can take that from you, and that is my gratitude, for such an amount of happiness you bring to people."
But it's not just been a source of joy and excitement for Argentines. It's been a pleasure and a privilege for the rest of us to bear witness to this most remarkable renaissance, this most fantastical of finales.
In that sense, it doesn't really matter what happens when the music stops. This last dance has already been beautiful.
Whichever nation wins the World Cup final, every single person lucky enough to be in Lusail will be able to say, the best player ever played here today.