By Hezzy Benson ’26
Lionel Messi is something special. He is still one of the best footballers in the world today, and after his World Cup triumph, many are calling him the greatest ever to play. It’s hard to argue with them. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Messi. He’s had to work his way to the top, and like so many great stories, his story starts with humble beginnings.
Messi grew up in Rosario, Argentina, where he excelled in football early on. He was so promising, so skilled with the ball, and called a “prodigy” and “the next Maradona” from the day he started playing. He was four when he started dribbling the ball around and was led by his grandmother to the worst team in town as a means of helping them out. Leo joined the team’s effort, helping them succeed, and scored an immediate goal after joining his first game and abruptly scoring two more. Leo’s play did not slow down, but physically he could not speed up. Leo was shockingly short, and it seemed he would never grow. He grew more and more self-conscious despite his successes on the field.
Lucky for him, things would change. After a few years of fine-tuning his game in Argentina, Leo was offered the famous “napkin contract” by FC Barcelona. Barca were so desperate to sign him that they wouldn’t risk waiting any longer, and their agent signed Leo on a cloth paper.
But the best news of all was that Barcelona promised to address Leo’s medical needs: he would be able to contain shots containing hormones to support his growth. This would allow Messi to grow physically and as a footballer.
Messi was a bright star at Barca’s academy La Masia, and wearing the number 30, scored his first goal for Barca at 17 years and 331 days old, breaking the record for youngest goalscorer. Says Messi, “It took me 17 Years and 144 days to become an overnight success.” It’s hard to argue with his word- even though he wouldn’t complete his best season for several years, he produced incredible football from the minute he joined any game at Barcelona, and his minutes rapidly increased. In the 2008/2009 season, Messi was wearing the number 19 jersey, and was the juggernaut of Barcelona’s offense. In one game against Getafe, Messi received the ball from Sergio Busquets near the halfway line and simply kept it glued to his feet while racing downfield, evading almost the entirety of Getafe’s defense, then passing the ball into the back of the net. The goal is one of the best of his career and is often compared to Maradona’s solo goal against England. In the next decade and a half, Messi would surpass Maradona, playing for a Barcelona side that won the Champions League and La Liga multiple times, showcasing blistering attacking football.
With the 2014 World Cup approaching, it seemed Messi was at his best. Though Barca had lost in the Champions League that year, Messi had been hindered and not stopped. Argentina made their way to the final, where they would face Germany. But late into extra time, Götze scored for Germany, winning the World Cup for his team. Heartbroken, Messi and his teammates tried for a trophy yet again in 2016 at the Copa America, but lost on penalty kicks to Chilé in the final.
Messi missed his penalty.
Though he won everything with Barcelona, it seemed he would not be able to match Maradona’s record with Argentina. In 2016, Messi retired from international play.
Messi returned to Barcelona and though he lost out on the Ballon d’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo, the trio of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, or MSN, was going strong.
Meanwhile, as Argentina struggled, the void Messi had left was growing.
Argentina needed Messi, and Messi needed Argentina. He rejoined the side, helping them qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Many called it Messi’s last chance to win the trophy that had evaded him for so long- he was 31 years old, and it seemed if he didn’t win it then, surely he would end his career without becoming a world champion. Argentina progressed into the knockout stage but lost to France in the Round of 16. It was a bitter loss, and people questioned whether he would still be going strong four years later.
But in 2022 in Qatar, Messi was ever present, and now on the tail end of his career, this was going to be his last chance for a World Cup. Argentina had their major trophy- they had won the Copa America the year before- but winning the World Cup was a completely different task. And after Argentina’s shock loss to Saudi Arabia in their first game, the critics were at large once more. Nevertheless, some were still optimistic about Argentina’s chances, and there was still time. They would have to win every single game, but the prospects of that happening grew more and more likely as they progressed through the tournament. Argentina looked more and more like a cup-winning side- it was refreshing to see Messi as a contributor and not a weight bearer, as a player who, as magnificent as he is, the team immensely benefited from but didn’t always rely on. No matter what, Messi would be Argentina’s best player, but his support was greater than ever, with players like MacAllister, Alvarez, De Paul, Romero, Molina, and others shining. Argentina demolished Poland in their last group stage game, 3-0, and were into the knockout stage, where despite letting in a late goal, they beat Australia in the Round of 16 and advanced to play the Netherlands in the Quarterfinals.
This would surely be the toughest test of the tournament, and it was. Argentina finally emerged victorious after a furious comeback mounted by the Netherlands, and after one of the greatest World Cup Quarterfinals ever, Argentina were through to the semifinals. Argentina completely untied Croatia in the match, winning 3-0. Messi and Alvaréz starred. Messi provided an assist for Alvaréz that included a near half field demolition and embarrassment of Josko Gvardiol, who had had the tournament of his life. Messi completely spun him and evaded Gvardiol’s manhandling to perfectly pick out his teammate.
In the finals, France awaited. No matter what would happen, Messi had already proven something: he was still going. After all this time, the magic Messi encapsulates is so unique, the way he dribbles and drives so deadly that he can wriggle out of anyone’s grasp. Messi, as long as he is playing, will provide the world’s best football for club or country. In the final, he did just that. In what will go down as one of the greatest World Cup finals of all time, both Argentina and France delivered an outstanding game. The final had everything, and was one of the most dramatic matches ever. Argentina won, Messi won, and the Rosarian’s legacy is cemented. Messi has proven yet again how he should never be underestimated. His football contains his spirit and strength, and he has shown why he will continue to deliver greatness, season after season. Enjoy it, because we are watching the best ever play.