“Messi es bueno pero porque está acompañado de extraordinarios futbolistas. Para un equipo normal, piénsalo – ¿Messi o Cristiano? ¿A quién elegirías?”
“Messi is good but because he is accompanied by extraordinary players. For a normal team, think about it – Messi or Cristiano? Who would you choose?”
Of all the withering things people have said about Lionel Messi over the years, this was one of the worst – because of what it said, when it was said, and most of all, who was saying it.
The private WhatsApp voice note leaked to the internet on the night of June 21st, 2018. Messi had just captained Argentina to a 3-0 World Cup defeat against Croatia, five days after missing a penalty in a 1-1 draw against Iceland. Cristiano Ronaldo, for his part, had scored a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw against Spain and followed that up with the winner against Morocco – all this just a few weeks after winning his fifth Champions League title in Kyiv.
Diego Simeone would later clarify that of course he would always choose Messi over Ronaldo, that he didn’t really mean what it sounded like he meant in that leaked voice message to his then-assistant at Atletico Madrid, Germán Burgos.
But the damage was done. Here was one of the greatest Argentinian coaches, and a former player who symbolised both the machismo and the cunning venerated by Argentinian football, suggesting that Messi only seemed so great because he was cosseted and pampered with all the necessary equipment and conditions for greatness at Barcelona, then still regarded as the world’s top football club.
The logic of Simeone’s remark was that if Ronaldo was an all-terrain superhero who could walk into any game or any team in the world and finish top scorer, Messi was like some soft pulpy creature transformed into the lord of the battlefield by a nuclear titanium exoskeleton. We could all be great if we had that much help. Take away the support system and what are you left with? A paper tiger. A hothouse flower. A shrinking, flinching Pessi who now actually couldn’t even score penalties.
Messi had been hearing versions of this for a long time, but to hear it from someone as respected as Simeone would have hurt. The worst thing about this angle of criticism is the circularity that made it hard to prove wrong. Messi had spent his whole career at Barcelona, having the team built around him precisely because he was a genius, and now this was being used to belittle him. It’s like the people who say they’ll be impressed by Pep Guardiola when he goes to Burnley and gets them playing like Manchester City – ignoring the reality that someone who is acclaimed as the best coach in the world is always going to be employed by the biggest or richest clubs.
The only way Messi could refute it was by succeeding with Argentina, which is why this World Cup has been such a sweet vindication. At last he has emulated Maradona by playing his best football when it matters most to Argentina. He has proved that he can actually inspire a “normal” team and show his genius even when he is not surrounded by other geniuses to make him look good (although Julián Álvarez is one of the best forwards he has played with in the national team). And he can actually lead his country to huge victories at the World Cup – at least when he has Emiliano Martinez in goal rather than Willy Caballero ... even a genius can only do so much.
The age-old Messi-Ronaldo question is in a very different place today compared to the night Simeone sent that voice note. Argentina’s march to the final, inspired by a series of Messi moments almost too corny for Hollywood, has led some religiously-inclined Ronaldo stans to grapple with an even older question: how can a supposedly all-powerful, all-knowing and all-just God allow evil to flourish?
They can only pray that God’s instrument in the form of Kylian Mbappé smites and scatters Argentina (the Mbappé theodicy). With four appearances in the last seven finals, it does look as though the French have become the chosen people of the football God. But reports of an outbreak of pestilence in the French dressing room – with Adrien Rabiot, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté and Raphaël Varane all complaining of flu symptoms over the last couple of days – will fill Ronaldo stan hearts with dread.
Whatever way Sunday’s final goes, the near-perfection of the competing hero narratives will delight both Fifa president Gianni Infantino and the Qatari hosts and sponsors. Infantino addressed the media yesterday in the same venue as his legendary opening press conference where he said that Europe should spend the next 3,000 years apologising to the rest of the world for what it had done over the last 3,000 years.
The first question he was asked was: “Mr President, the World Cup has been a massive success – a massive, all-front success?” Infantino agreed that all was for the best in the best of all possible World Cups.
Later he was asked to say what he believed was the “most transformative legacy” of the tournament. His answer: “Many people from around the world have come to Qatar and have discovered the Arab world which they didn’t know, or they knew only what was portrayed to them. And the Qataris – or Saudis or Emiratis, who also welcomed many fans from around the world – have prepared themselves to welcome the world. Opened their houses, their doors, their countries. Those who came, and those who were here to welcome them, eventually discovered what is said, what is thought, what is believed – is not true. You can spend time together, and enjoy and have a good time, know each other better.”
You were left to wonder what kind of mad stuff Infantino was actually reading before this tournament. Who ever suggested that it would be impossible for foreign fans to “spend time together, and enjoy and have a good time, know each other better” in Qatar? The country has been built to welcome well-off foreign visitors.
Most pre-tournament criticism was about the treatment of the people who did the building. A piece in this newspaper on November 1st claimed: “Qatar’s rulers have built a racialised caste system, with Qataris at the top and a managerial class consisting mainly of white Westerners on the second tier, all propped up on the labour of millions of low-paid workers imported from South Asia and Africa.” Far from discovering this is “not true”, in Doha you see it confirmed every day.
Infantino rhapsodised about the fact that fans of 32 countries were able to spend time together in the same city without World War III breaking out. It was as though he had never seen or heard of a World Cup before. The scenes of fans mingling in the Souq Waqif were not some historic milestone in human brotherhood. This is just what the World Cup is! Nothing happened in Doha that didn’t happen before in the cities of Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, Korea and Japan during their World Cups. ln Doha it’s just been happening on a smaller scale. For Infantino to package this up and present it as somehow “transformative” is an insult to the intelligence.
It cannot be denied, though, that this has been a good World Cup for brotherhood in the strict sense. It’s hard not to notice how male-dominated the crowds are, particularly at night. After the Argentina-Croatia semi-final I walked through the Souq on my way home, surveying another virtually all-male crowd. The slogan of Qatar 2022 is “Now Is All!” but as a friend here suggested, they’d have been better off going with “Men, At It!”