Messi carries the weight of Argentina into World Cup final

Dec 14, 2022, 8:34 PM | Updated: Dec 15, 2022, 3:36 pm
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates at the end of the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Arge...

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates at the end of the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Argentina and Croatia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

              Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his side's first goal with a penalty shot during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Argentina and Croatia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
            
              Argentina's Lionel Messi, who scored his side's first goal, left, celebrates with Julian Alvarez after Alvarez scored his side's second goal during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Argentina and Croatia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
            
              Argentina's Lionel Messi cover his face after beating Croatia 3-0 in a World Cup semifinal soccer match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
            
              Argentina's Lionel Messi, center, celebrate with teammates Rodrigo De Paul, left, and Nicolas Tagliafico after defeating Croatia 3-0 in a World Cup semifinal soccer match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
            
              Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates at the end of the World Cup semifinal soccer match between Argentina and Croatia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
            
              Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates defeating Croatia 3-0 in a World Cup semifinal soccer match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
            
              A flag featuring Lionel Messi, left, and the late soccer great Maradona hangs amid Argentina soccer fans after they watched the team's World Cup semifinal win over Croatia, hosted by Qatar, on a screen set up in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
            
              Argentina soccer fans celebrate their team's victory over Croatia at the end of the team's World Cup semifinal match in Qatar after watching it on a screen, where Lionel Messi's live image is shown, in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — As Lionel Messi approaches his second and likely last World Cup final, the stakes could hardly be higher.

The same goes for Argentina after more than 30 years of disappointment since it last won soccer’s ultimate prize.

For Messi, victory against France at Lusail Stadium on Sunday is a chance to finally get his hands on the one major trophy that has eluded him in his storied career.

In doing so, he would push ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has also never won a World Cup, in the long-running rivalry between the two greatest players of their generation.

While 37-year-old Ronaldo exited the tournament at the quarterfinals stage, benched by Portugal and in tears in the likely recognition that his last chance had passed, Messi is summoning some of his finest moments in an Argentina shirt to inspire his country’s run to the final.

“Each time we see him play, he makes us and the players feel something special,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. “There’s something about him that people like, not only Argentines.

“We feel lucky and privileged to have him wear our shirt.”

Messi’s place alongside Diego Maradona as one of Argentina’s two most iconic soccer stars has been secure for some time now. But he is yet to emulate Maradona’s greatest achievement by leading his national team to a World Cup title.

Maradona did that in Mexico in 1986 and Messi has lived with the expectation of repeating the feat since he emerged as a prodigy at Barcelona nearly 20 years ago.

There have been numerous false hopes during that time.

There was the potential “dream team” of Maradona as coach and Messi as star player in South Africa in 2010. But Argentina went out in the quarterfinals after being beaten 4-0 by Germany.

In 2014, with Messi approaching his peak years, Argentina reached the final in Brazil.

Again it faced Germany. Again Messi was on the losing side, beaten 1-0 through extra time.

At the age of 35, he knew this was probably his last shot at the World Cup and he has risen to the occasion as the tournament’s co-leading scorer with France forward Kylian Mbappé with five goals.

Perhaps more notable have been his assists, such as the disguised pass for Nahuel Molina’s goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

Then there was his mesmerizing run, turning Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol inside out, before setting up Julián Álvarez for Argentina’s third in the semis.

“It’s at least something I can talk (about) with my kids one day that I guarded this great, great player,” Gvardiol said Thursday.

Those assists have been indicative of the fact that Messi can no longer do it on his own. The emergence of Álvarez, with four goals, has been vital to Argentina’s progress.

Messi doesn’t dominate for an entire 90 minutes anymore. Instead, he decides matches with key moments.

He isn’t as dynamic as he was in his younger years, but he has been more influential than at any of his previous four World Cups.

While Messi is aiming to complete his personal collection of trophies, having won four Champions League titles and seven Ballon d’Or awards for the best player in the world, Argentina is looking to end its long wait for a third World Cup.

It won the tournament for the first time when hosting in 1978 and then again eight years later thanks to Maradona.

Messi was supposed to emulate that feat long before now.

If he retires without ever winning the World Cup, then how much longer will Argentina have to wait?

No wonder each moment of Messi magic and every win is greeted with such an outpouring of emotion.

The sense of anticipation is growing among Argentina fans, who have lit up the tournament in a sea of blue and white, marching through the streets of Qatar.

Messi is feeding the belief that this could be their time again.

If this is his farewell tour, he has given his supporters a wild ride along the way.

And with or without a World Cup, Scaloni has no doubt about Messi’s status as the greatest of all time.

“It seems like we say that just because we’re Argentinians and we fall into the trap of being selfish because it is very Argentinian to say that,” he said. “But I think there are no doubts.”

___

James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

___

AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Pittsburg quarterback Jaden Rashada (5) is pressured by Liberty's Grant Buckey (72) during the seco...
Associated Press

4-star QB Rashada commits to Arizona State after UF NIL flap

Blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada, who signed with Florida in December and then asked to be released from the commitment when a name, imagine and likeness deal fell through, says he is going to Arizona State. Rashada announced on Twitter on Wednesday, the first day of the traditional signing period for high school football players, that […]
1 day ago
Apple senior vice president of services Eddy Cue, right, speaks next to Major League Soccer Commiss...
Associated Press

Apple embraces potential of sports streaming with MLS deal

CUPERTINO, Calif. (AP) — After taking its first dip into sports streaming last year, Apple is now immersing itself. The tech giant kicked off a 10-year partnership with Major League Soccer on Wednesday with the launch of Season Pass on Apple TV+. “This is very important for us. It is one of the key things […]
1 day ago
FILE - Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) sets back to pass during the first half of a...
Associated Press

Brady’s unprecedented career filled with highlight moments

Nobody drove Tom Brady harder than the record-setting quarterback himself, even if his 23rd and final season after a brief retirement didn’t end with him lifting yet another Lombardi Trophy. He leaves the NFL with more wins, yards passing and touchdowns than any other quarterback. He even set a pair of single-season passing records at […]
1 day ago
Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a backhand return to Roberto Carballes Baena of Spain during their f...
Associated Press

Australian Open director: Djokovic’s hamstring had 3-cm tear

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Novak Djokovic played at the Grand Slam event with a muscle tear of 3 centimeters — a little more than an inch — in his left hamstring along the way to winning the championship. “He gets a bad rap, but at the end of […]
1 day ago
FILE -Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reacts during the first half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals between...
Associated Press

Pat Riley: Kareem never had potential, ‘only greatness’

Pat Riley remembers just about every detail surrounding the events of Dec. 29, 1961. It was a cold night in Schenectady, New York. A little snowy, the roads a little icy. And when the bus carrying the opposing team from New York City arrived, all of Riley’s Linton High teammates peered out the window. They […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Welsh choir won’t sing ‘Delilah’ amid rugby sexism claims

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — A popular song by Tom Jones that has been a regular feature at Welsh sporting events will not be performed at the Six Nations tournament amid allegations of sexism, bullying and racism at the Welsh Rugby Union. “Delilah,” which was first released in 1968, contains lyrics that are “problematic and upsetting […]
1 day ago
Messi carries the weight of Argentina into World Cup final