|Host nation: Qatar Dates: 20 November-18 December Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Day-by-day TV listings – Full coverage details|
Lionel Messi’s World Cup story is almost over but, however it ends, I know things are going to be a lot less enjoyable without him.
Whatever happens in Sunday’s final, which will be his last match on this global stage, Messi’s performances in Qatar have cemented his place in the hearts of football fans around the world.
There was a beautiful moment after Argentina’s win over Croatia in the semi-finals, where a reporter told Messi that he has made his mark on everyone’s life, and that is more important than the result against France and winning his first World Cup.
She was absolutely right. People always go on at me about how much I talk about Messi but I make no apologies for that, and I never will, because watching him has given me so much joy – nearly two decades of absolute delight in fact.
He is 35 now, and we haven’t got much longer of him left, so let’s savour every second.
Messi has played in six games at this World Cup and he has been man of the match in four of them.
But it’s not just his five goals or his three assists that have made him stand out at this tournament, it’s the little things he does – like when he is trapped by three or four players and you think, well, he won’t get out there… but he does, and he does it repeatedly.
I’ve said many times that I consider him the greatest player to have ever played the game, and I’ve never put that solely down to his scoring statistics, as staggering as they are – it’s because of his vision, his awareness, and his decision-making.
It really does seem like he plays as if he is viewing the game from above at the same time, but even that doesn’t really do full justice to his genius.
Every time he has played at this World Cup, the crowd cannot take their eyes off him – as soon as he gets the ball, the whole stadium collectively holds its breath. They stand up and they wait for his magic, and he has always delivered.
There have been so many jaw-dropping moments, like his brilliant dribble and precision pass to set up a goal against the Dutch, or the perfect first touch and strike to score against Mexico, which turned Argentina’s fortunes in this tournament around.
Then there was his incredible assist for Julian Alvarez in the semi-final, when he turned Josko Gvardiol inside out and left him utterly bewildered in his wake.
You are left thinking ‘wow’ and wondering how Messi can do that to one of the strongest and quickest defenders in the world but even then he is still thinking about what comes next and picks out Alvarez, and instead you are working out how on earth he saw him.
Messi has shown for many years now that he is a truly extraordinary player, but I think even from just watching him at this tournament, you would realise he is special, and better than anyone else in the modern game.
When we make comparisons like that, we sometimes get a little bit caught up just with goalscoring, which is great for me because it makes me appear a better player than I was.
If that was the criteria then I’d be a little bit better than Diego Maradona, which is obviously absurd because he practically played a different sport.
It is the same with the Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate now. Their numbers are fairly similar, goals-wise, but I would argue Messi has the greater ‘wow’ factor.
Ronaldo has it too, when he scores a great goal, and Kylian Mbappe is the same with his explosive bursts of pace but neither of them can do the things Messi can.
Messi will beat four or five men in a tiny space and just pass it just five yards, or see a pass no-one else does and deliver that with the perfect weight.
He has done all of that at this tournament, just as he’s done it during his whole career.
Some people have been surprised by his form here, because they thought he’d been struggling at Paris St-Germain, but that’s not the case.
I watch all PSG’s games, because I love watching him play, and this season he has been unbelievably brilliant – so he came into this World Cup in absolutely fantastic shape.
He no longer has that burst of acceleration he had in his prime but he still has his natural ability, the kind of raw talent that is hard to comprehend for us normal human beings, and he has also retained the incredible drive and determination that has kept him at the top for so long.
One of the ways Messi is unique as a player is that you see him just drift away from the action and stand in areas where he does not get the ball for a while.
You wonder what is he doing – is he evaluating everything that is going on and working out everyone’s positions, or is he just having a rest?
He has always done it, but it happens far more now than during his days under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, when he was more active in pressing the opposition.
It’s clear Argentina have found a way to play that allows him to choose his moments in a tournament that is so concertinaed, and it reminds me so much of the way their team worked when they won the 1986 World Cup.
That side was so tough and uncompromising with people such as Oscar Ruggeri and Jose Luis Brown at the back, and Julio Olarticoechea and Jorge Burruchaga in midfield, but also had a great striker and exceptionally intelligent man, Jorge Valdano.
Similarly, this 2022 Argentina side are workmanlike right through the team, without many other genuinely world-class players, but they do have a brilliant centre-forward, thanks to Alvarez’s emergence.
And they can rely on some genius from Messi, of course, just like Argentina did with Maradona before him – and there are obviously many similarities between those two.
It is always fun to talk about who is the greatest player of all time – or GOAT – because everyone has a different opinion, but I feel you can only really judge it in your own lifetime and from what you’ve seen.
I can’t count Pele, only because I didn’t really see him play, apart from when I was nine and he was playing in the 1970 World Cup, so Maradona is the only other candidate for me.
It’s remarkable that the two greatest players of all time – well, of my time – are both from the same country, both left footed, both small – and they both dribble and do all these kind of different incredible things.
It is always difficult to compare players from different generations because the game changes so much – for example Maradona was kicked constantly, and he played on some awful pitches too.
While I was with Barcelona, I played with him for a Rest of the World team at Wembley in 1987 as part of the Football League’s centenary celebrations. Everyone’s jaw dropped when he walked into our dressing room – we were all in awe of him.
When we went out for our warm-up, Maradona got a ball and juggled it all the way to the halfway line before booting it about 50 yards up in the air – and when it came straight down he booted it back up again.
He did it about 12 times, and hardly had to move. I remember telling the other Barca players about it when I went back to Spain and we all tried it. The best anyone did was three, with a massive sprint at the end.
Like Messi he was an staggering talent and, in many ways, they are both are so equal but you have to remember Maradona was at his very best for maybe only seven years because of his issues off the field.
Longevity has to count in your overall summary of who is the best – so, given the success he has had at club and more recently international level, it’s hard to put anyone above Messi right now.
One of the reasons I think he is playing so well in Qatar is because he has won a trophy with Argentina already, the 2021 Copa America, that seems to have taken the weight off his back with the expectations back home.
He still wants to win a World Cup too of course – and I can’t think of a better way for this tournament to finish.
Gary Lineker was speaking to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar
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