The FIFA World Cup concluded to a befitting climax on 18 December with a final game that will remain etched in memories. Argentina’s win, which was celebrated in Kerala with as much vigour as in the streets of Buenos Aires, was well deserved in that they held the upper hand through most of the match.
France went down fighting, coming back twice, both during the regular and extra time, to wipe out deficits that would have overawed a lesser side.
Though penalty shootouts may not be the ideal method for determining the winner in a closely fought game, this was one occasion when this system helped to uphold justice by coming out with a fair result.
This was, without even an iota of doubt, Lionel Messi’s World Cup. He dominated the tournament in a similar manner as Pele and Maradona did in 1970 and 1986 respectively. He was the pivot around whom the Argentina side revolved; the magician opening up scoring opportunities; the playmaker deciding the pace and style of the game and the finisher scoring goals almost at will.
It was never in doubt among those who followed the championship that he would win the “Golden Ball” award – he was too far ahead of the rest of the pack to even think in terms of competition for this honour.
With seven goals to his credit, he finished just behind Mbappe of France in the race for the “Golden Boot”, awarded to the highest scorer.
The rousing reception that greeted the victorious team when it landed back in Buenos Aires showed the popularity of the sport as well as the magnitude of the achievement. The phrase “one team, one country, one dream” emblazoned on the special aircraft that took the squad from Qatar to their homeland, encapsulated the emotions of the millions of Argentines who thronged the streets dancing with joy.
The love, regard and respect of the grateful nation could not have been expressed in a better way. It was truly a welcome befitting an all-conquering hero.
The senior members of the squad would have felt the stark and striking contrast between these ecstatic celebrations and the pall of gloom and despair that enveloped the nation when the national side returned after a miserable campaign four years ago.
There were rumours that Messi, then aged 31, would retire from the game as he was piqued by the severe criticism about his failure to win championships titles for his country. He stayed away from some matches but was persuaded by the new coach Lionel Scaloni to start wearing the blue and white jersey of the national side.
The tide started turning gradually and soon the side embarked on a winning spree which saw them lift the Copa America title in 2021, the first one ever after Messi joined the national team.
A spate of victories followed and the side reached Qatar riding on a 36-match unbeaten streak.
And the events that took place in Qatar have now become part of a football legend.
There was widespread expectation that Messi would announce his retirement from international soccer at the end of the World Cup.
However, he indicated his intention to carry on playing under the national flag, wearing the blue and white striped jersey for some more time.
He is in the second half of the fourth decade of his life at present and the possibility of playing the next World Cup appears remote, though there are instances of players on the other side of 40 taking part in this tournament.
In all probability, he may only be giving himself the opportunity to soak completely in the warm afterglow of a glorious triumph for a few months before taking the call regarding hanging up his boots for good.
Semblance of Sachin
In many aspects, Messi's career carries a remarkable semblance to that of Sachin Tendulkar, the cricketing legend from India.
Tendulkar was without a doubt the best batsman of his generation and one of the most popular cricketers of all time. The iconic stature that Messi carries in Argentina and the rest of the football world is comparable to the standing of Tendulkar in India, where he comes close to being revered.
If Messi carried the hopes and aspirations of 46 million Argentines every time he stepped out onto the football field, Tendulkar was burdened with the dreams of a billion Indians whenever he took his guard at the crease.
Incidentally, both of them chose to wear the jersey with the number “10” on it.
More significantly, both Messi and Tendulkar yearned to win the World Cup for their respective countries. Neither of them made any attempts to hide this intense desire; instead, they wore it on their sleeves proudly.
Both of them had to tirelessly wait to achieve this objective. Tendulkar had to play in 6 World Cup championships and wait till the age of 38 years to hold the coveted trophy in his hands while Messi had to play in five tournaments and reach 35 years before he could indulge in the fantasy of going to bed with the prized souvenir by his side.
The delay in attaining the goal might have made the achievement appear sweeter when it finally happened, but the disappointments en route would have caused terrible pain as well. If Messi was haunted by the poor performance of the side in the 2018 FIFA Cup, Tendulkar had to live down the memories of a below-par show in the 2007 edition of the International Cricket Council (ICC) world championships, where India was ousted even prior to reaching the knockout stage.
They were able to bounce back and guide their sides to the pole position within a span of four years only because of their tremendous inner strength and staunch faith in their own abilities to raise their performance levels on the big stage as well as the capacity to inspire their colleagues to attain greater heights.
What next now for Messi? Though he is, without doubt, the most popular and admired personality in Argentina, he has, like Tendulkar, not shown any interest in entering the political arena.
One feels that his career in the post-World Cup triumph days will also follow the course set by Tendulkar. In all probability, he will continue to play for Argentina for a couple of years at most before bidding adieu to international football, while continuing to play club soccer for some more time.
He may also consider serving some larger public causes in his home country, without holding any public office, and thus contribute to the welfare of the society that has stood by him and elevated him to the pedestal of a living legend.
To sum up, both the Messiah of football and the God of cricket have contributed substantially to providing happiness and improving the sense of dignity of millions of their countrymen through their contributions in their respective fields.
A Big Salute to Lionel Andres Messi and Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar- Icons to generations and idols worthy of emulation.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)