For more than a decade, the world has had two Lionel Messis. On Saturday, they finally met on the pitch.
The first Messi plays for Barcelona and is the greatest soccer player who ever lived, an irrepressible typhoon of statistics and highlights, championships and awards. A 10-time La Liga winner, four-time Champions League winner, six-time Ballon d’Or winner, six-time top scorer in Europe, and recipient of countless other awards from just about everyone who gives them out. (Your local Rotary Club has probably honored him.) For a time, he was simultaneously the best scorer, the best passer, and the best dribbler in the world, and even at age 34, you could still argue he’s all three. He has won everything there is to be won with his club, and done it with verve and style and more magic than our base mortal selves deserve.
The other Messi, the one who plays international soccer for Argentina, is merely one of the world’s best players. He is still his nation’s all-time leading scorer, was named the most valuable player of the 2014 World Cup, and sits just one goal shy of tying Pele on the international scoring charts for male players. But for all his success with Barcelona, he had never won a trophy with Argentina, and because this was the most obvious cudgel that could be wielded against him, it got swung around a lot.
Now it’s been cut down to size. On Saturday, for the fifth time in his international career, Messi and Argentina found themselves in the final of a senior international tournament. For the first time since his debut, his country won it, beating Brazil 1–0 in the final of the South American continental championship, the Copa América.
Messi had little to do with the winner when it arrived midway through the first half. You can see his gravity impacting the play as the Brazilian midfield drops and surrounds him, giving Rodrigo De Paul plenty of time to measure his long pass, but this is less important than the defensive errors of Neymar, who should have been pressuring De Paul, and Renan Lodi, who misses his interception, or the sublime touch and finish of Ángel Di María.
It was one of the few Argentina goals Messi wasn’t involved in. He scored four and assisted on five of his team’s 12 goals in the tournament on his way to being named its best player. Even when he wasn’t scoring, he shaped the games. Six Colombians received yellow cards in Argentina’s semifinal match for fouling Messi. He finished that match with a bloody bullseye on his ankle, taunting Colombia’s Yerry Mina after his miss in the penalty shootout.
He made it out of the final relatively unscathed. The game was testy, featuring 9 yellow cards, 41 fouls and an equal mix of shamefully embellished light contact and absolute ultraviolence. Neymar’s shorts were ripped within the first 10 minutes, but he kept coming at Argentina’s defenders, getting knocked to the ground by them, and, yes, diving past them. Messi, by contrast, was a more passive presence, well-marshalled by the Brazilian defenders, perhaps nursing soreness in that gashed ankle. It’s not the first time this has happened. In each of their previous Copa América finals and the 2014 World Cup final, Messi and Argentina were held scoreless. Had they lost here, the stock criticism that Messi appeared to drift through games for Argentina when things weren’t going well for him likely would have resurfaced. Say what you will about Neymar, but he at least understands how to perform the type of hero ball that makes it look like he’s doing all he can.
Messi even had a chance in the 88th minute to put the game to bed, when he ran onto a through ball, tried to cut it back around Brazil’s goalkeeper, and slipped, falling harmlessly next to an already-sprawling Ederson, who plucked the ball gratefully off his foot.
As metaphors for Messi’s Argentina career go, it was about as subtle as a leg-breaking tackle. If Brazil had found an equalizer in added time, the discourse would have written itself. That Messi won his long-sought title while having perhaps his worst game—Sofascore’s player ratings had him at 8.3 for the entire tournament and just 6.4 for the final—should perhaps be a clue about the unfairness of the ways we judge individual athletes in team sports. Di María, after all, was hurt for the World Cup final in 2014 and got hurt in the 2015 Copa América final, and if he hadn’t been, there’s a chance Messi would’ve already won the elusive title. Di María had actually scored the winner for Messi’s last bit of international glory, when his team won the Olympic gold medal in 2008. (Men’s soccer at the Olympics primarily features players under the age of 23, in order to preserve the primacy of the World Cup. Still, it seems like you ought to get at least partial credit for an Olympic gold medal.)
Instead, the story was one of joy, relief, and possibly one of the last real inflection points to his legendary career. Argentina will have to improve to count itself among the favorites for the 2022 World Cup, and the next Copa América isn’t until 2024. And before those events, Messi will have to decide whether to stay with Barcelona—his club since he was a teenager, which he asked to leave last year but looks more likely to stay with now, if the astronomical finances involved can be worked out. If he doesn’t move to another European powerhouse this summer, then whatever else he wins with Barcelona—and it might not be much, given the current state of the club—it will be more of the same. Neither a late-career move to MLS nor a swan song return to his boyhood club in Argentina would shift opinions appreciably. At this point, nothing short of an unlikely World Cup victory will make a dent in the narrative of his career. What we have now is what posterity will keep forever: a human superlative, an unrivaled talent, and a winner, for both club and country.