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The first time I ever heard the name Lionel “Leo” Messi was at about 4:30 in the morning. The denizens of that Rosario bar in Argentina in 2003 were not up late, we had woken up early.
Boca Juniors were playing AC Milan and the game was in Japan, hence the weird hours. Sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes and nibbling on medialunas, the guy next to me says, “You heard about this new kid?”
Over the past almost two decades since, Messi, born in that same city of Rosario, exploded into world soccer like a newfangled firework. His dominance and artistry have astounded and confounded.
He plays the game in a way nobody ever has, not even the great shadow of a national hero who ever hangs above him. He is simply a magician.
But that night, as Boca, the quintessential Argentine club team faced up against European competition, Messi was still a distant dream. Carlos Tevez, another legend of the Albiceleste, as Argentina’s soccer team is known, starred in that early morning exercise of the beautiful game, and it was beautiful. But little did we know.
AN ANGRY LIONEL MESSI IS GOOD FOR ARGENTINA — AND SCARY FOR OPPONENTS
What does it mean to be the greatest who has ever done something? To be the greatest to play soccer? It’s all subjective, of course, but for Leo Messi, it is all about one man and one nation.
It is impossible to overstate what Diego Maradona means to Argentina. Especially for Americans because we don’t really care about international sports. We kind of pretend to have national heroes during the Olympics, but it never amounts to more than a cereal box or family drama.
Put simply, the entire nation of Argentina loves Maradona, once Messi’s coach, who died in 2020. He was the last Argentine star to lift the World Cup in 1986, wearing Messi’s same iconic number 10. In one game that year against hated rival England he authored not only arguably the best goal in the tournament’s history, but also the cheeky (and possibly illegal) Hand of God goal.
No matter how good Messi was in his professional clubs, first in Barcelona, now in Paris, no matter how many ballon D’ors he won as world’s best player, he won a record-breaking 7, there was only ever one thing that could allow him to eclipse Maradona as the nation’s greatest legend. Winning the World Cup.
Adding to the drama, is that while Maradonna won his Cup at his prime, this is Messi’s swan song. Years and years of disappointment and failure in international competition were the only, but a growing stain on Messi’s legacy.
Last year he won his first South American championship, but only the cleansing power of the World Cup can truly scrub his sky blue and white striped jersey clean.
But, let’s not forget, there’s a team on the other side of the pitch, too. Ironically, Messi’s Paris Saint Germaine teammate, the dynamic Kylian Mbappe, has other ideas. He already has a World Cup from France’s victory two years ago, this would be his second, at age 23. Only one man has ever won three, that would be Pele. Will the student stand in the master’s way in the final?
In Bernard Malmud’s novel “The Natural,” the protagonist, a young baseball phenom name Roy Hobbs is asked what his goal is, he says, “Sometimes, when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game.” It didn’t work out for Hobbs, but Messi is one soccer game away.
As I watch on Sunday, I’ll think back to that bar in Rosario, the passion of the fans in the wee hours, the tension during the penalty shoot out, won by Boca to celebratory gunfire in the streets, and I’ll think of that guy I watched the game with.
Today, I have an answer to his question, “Yeah, I’ve heard about the kid.”