His smile breaks through the tufts of his scraggly beard, giving glimpses of his baby face. As he jumps with his teammates after revalidating his and his country’s greatness in the universe of this beautiful game, Lionel Messi remains just that simple boy who loves to play football.
Barring a few fleeting moments of him letting the world know that he’s human like his gestures to the Dutch Coach after their game versus the Netherlands or angrily telling, Wout Weghorst, the scorer of the Netherlands’ two goals, “Que Miras, bobo?” (meaning, ‘What are you looking at, silly’), Messi has been the picture of grace and humility.
Through the tournament, it was less and less about him winning the world cup but doing his best so that he could take the cup home for those in Argentina. In his final press conference in Qatar, he couldn’t wait to go home. “This is not the time for analysis, it’s time for celebration. Please wait for us (to Argentinians), we are coming to celebrate with you”.
And Argentina waits. For its boy. For its son and man ways, for its identity around which life revolves, in a nation where football is the shape of their lives, not just their world. From the Villas miseria (Shanty slums equivalent of the favelas of Brazil), to the trattorias and tavernas to the mansions in the posher parts, the whole of Argentina sang one song as they held Messi’s hand, figuratively.
According to the Sports brief website, the song was Muchachos, its popularity flooded social media last year after Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final. The sea of blue and white supporters serenaded the venue of the finals and the streets of Argentina with the “I was born in Argentina, land of Diego and Lionel” chant.
Meanwhile, as one hero was raised to the skies, another footballing great Cristiano Ronaldo was walking into the sunset, his greatness sinking into what many thought was a sea of arrogance.
From his hurtful behaviour towards his coach Santos (even his wife wrote insulting tweets to the coach), to claiming Bruno Fernandes’ goal vs Uruguay, many in the team and outside felt this was all about Ronaldo himself and no one else, not even his team.
Then, when he was benched against South Korea, he blew a fuse.
One of the major international pieces on Ronaldo by Mark Doyle in Goal.com had this to say and this is very telling “Ronaldo had created an unnecessary distraction, a media frenzy that the Selecao really could have done without going into a tournament they had a serious shot at winning. When he was mercifully hauled off midway through the first half, he reacted with a petulant show of dissatisfaction with Santos. “You’re always in such an f***ing hurry to take me off,” he mumbled to himself. Qatar 2022, then, was meant to be about silencing the critics. He wanted to disarm those who had their “rifles pointed” at him; instead, he only provided them with more ammunition”
Though Ronaldo did send a warm congratulatory message to Messi after he won the world cup tweeting ‘A farewell worthy of the genius who, far beyond being a World Cup star, led an era. Congratulations Messi!,”, this might do little to reverse the impact of a genius who has flaws, who walked into the tunnel alone after Portugal exited from the world cup, without a reassuring arm around his teammates.
His legacy will remain for what he has done as one of the greatest footballers of all time. But greatness has many barometers; humility, grace, and empathy are some of the more important ones. It is not so much about how many goals are scored but also about assists, which tells you that football is a team sport.
But most importantly, as ambassadors of the sport both Messi and Ronaldo had in them to move their nations, make the young believe, give hope and make the beautiful game the ship of life, moving ahead, conquering new frontiers, and shaping destinies that change the country and the future of their people. Messi may be the ultimate in Argentina but Argentina is the ultimate for Messi, for whom his land is above all else.
Sadly, Ronaldo has made this about footballing greatness only, about “him” winning the cup, about ambition, and about dominance and power.
Sport, on the other hand, is about simple enjoyment and hope and giving nations the energy to dream.
It must also be said that countries recognise this greatness and work with them, partner with them, and don’t ever dominate them or rule over them. The same applies to France where the French president waited patiently for his star Mbape to regain his composure before hugging him like any football fan. In Messi’s Argentina too, the system will step back to pay homage to the most unifying factor in their country. That is the power of greatness, humility, and humility in greatness.
Yes, we witnessed a fantastic world cup in Qatar, a nation that has excelled itself with its charm, politeness, and efficiency, in giving to the world not just its most spectacular world cup, but also the most welcoming.
But we also witnessed Lionel Messi, the G.O.A.T stamping his humility and humanity as icing on his cake of greatness.