The video of him playing on the Lusail Boulevard, the loud, shimmering promenade created a few hundred yards away, capture a purer form of Messi, with the ball at his feet, yet a more raw and muscular image of the player survives in the mind’s eye today.
It was arguably most visible as he tried to regain possession of the ball near the conclusion of the first half, after Croatia’s uncompromising RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol had just stolen it from him.
Messi merely stood in the space to which a second pass was struck, allowing it to smash into his head, before returning to Gvardiol in a position that indicated he would not be yielding it.
It was the same when he seized the golden ball they had constructed for this round of the tournament and dispatched the penalty that moved him above Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Argentina has seen a different Messi at this stadium, as seen by the scenes last Friday night, when he mocked and berated the Dutch after thrashing them in a way reminiscent of Diego Maradona.
Back in Buenos Aires, his actions that night were not met with such unanimity. After such incidents, the renowned daily title in the capital, La Nacion, remarked of Messi, “the outstanding footballer could not restrain the vulgar guy.”
Cristian Gross, the paper’s sports editor, believes that “learning how to win is the genuine test of behavior and morals.”
Of course, this is a minority viewpoint. Messi’s assertiveness is a symptom of a different sort of leadership, according to those chanting the Muchachos hymn of hope and optimism, which has been ringing over this city for nearly four weeks. He demonstrated leadership by leading the squad out into the warm-up.
On this high stage in Argentina, there has always been someone senior to him: Juan Roman Riquelme in 2006, Gabriel Heinze and Javier Mascherano in 2010, when Maradona was the coach and figurehead. Messi was captain in 2014, but Mascherano was the true leader. There was no leader at all in 2018. Messi is finally that man.
At the end of yesterday night’s game, he referred to Argentina as “my entire team,” with a touch of appropriation and subservience to him.
That’s how it’s seemed so many times here, with them doing most of the running, pressing, and bidding as he sprinkles the gold dust. What Messi brings from individuals who you would not expect to be stars on this stage is not always completely understood.
Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister has been his wingman and running buddy for much of this journey to the final. Julian Alvarez Messi helped to shine on Tuesday night.
The 22-year-old striker has revealed that adjusting to life in the Premier League has been difficult for him at Manchester City. Opponents sit deep, limiting his ability to get in behind defenders. He is surrounded by so many players that he is running out of time. There’s also the question of being Erling Haaland’s backup.
But the tempo of these World Cup games is slower, and the defending was shambolic last night, when Alvarez went past the Croatia defense to score his first goal.
Messi’s great performance of the night benefited Alvarez. It was his own pass that sent the magician down the right, followed by Gvardiol.
Messi defeated the Croat three times in a row. He was fouled twice by Gvardiol. The hand of a 6ft 1in defender on his shoulder, on the other hand, was a small annoyance. Messi surged forward near the dead-ball line, sensing Alvarez in his peripheral vision and putting on a pass that the striker eased home.
After scoring two goals in a World Cup semi-final, City’s sensational £14 million signing from River Plate became just the second Argentine, after Maradona, to leave the pitch.
Messi looked out into the massive sea of blue and white that will reassemble here on Sunday, singing the Muchachos song that Argentina’s players have chosen as their anthem.