As referee Esteban Ostojich blew the final whistle of the match, everyone in the esteemed white and blue-striped jersey ran towards Lionel Messi, who had already sunk to the ground on his knees. You could see tears of joy forming in his eyes as his teammates surround him and fans' cheer and shout encompasses him.
This must've been a day that he feared might never come. And for good reason too. In an absolutely mesmerising career that is nearing two decades, Messi has won it all- every trophy or accomplishment that a footballer can grasp for in Europe! But a prize that has always eluded him (up until now!) was a trophy for his national team. That is not to say that he hasn't come close. On four separate occasions, Messi has brought the team to an international competition's final. Fate was not on his side any of those times.
But as the years went by, pressure started mounting. He crossed 30 years of age and time was running out. But 2021 is the year that he finally answered his critics. At an age that is considered well past a professional footballer's prime, Messi managed to not just grab the coveted trophy but also the Best Player award and the Golden Boot.
This year, Messi was enchanting as ever as he opened his account in the tournament with a stunning freekick over the Chilean wall past the keeper Claudio Bravo. In the coming matches, he would go on to score another 3 goals and lay on five assists, effectively having a direct contribution to 9 of the 12 goals that his team scored in the tournament.
Ironically, the stadium in Maracana, where Messi currently won his first international trophy and ended Argentina's 28-year trophy drought, holds the memory of what presumably might be the Argentinian's most regretful day. It was in this same stadium, seven years ago, that Messi along with his Argentinian teammates lost their opportunity to claim the most prestigious prize of all-the World Cup.
A history of failures
A trophy for his country was the only roadblock to complete an illustrious career. Over the years, Messi had been repeatedly questioned about his loyalty to his country. At a young age, the child prodigy was taken away from his home in Santa Fe, Argentina to the famous grounds of La Masia, FC Barcelona's youth academy. From then now, it was in Spain that Messi grew from a child diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency to a legend of the sport. It was for this reason why Argentinians believed his heart was with La Roja, the Spanish football team. His critics carried on this narrative while citing comparisons of his achievements with Barcelona and Argentina.
Messi's woeful journey with Argentina started in 2007. At the age of 20, Messi witnessed a humbling defeat at the hands of the Brazilian national team who clinched the Copa America trophy after a thumping 3-0 victory. The next time he would come close to winning a trophy was in 2014, a year that was hyped up to be the Argentinian's year. As we all know, the night ended with another failure as the Germans' lifted the trophy after Mario Gotze volleyed the ball past Argentina's goalkeeper at 113th minute.
In both 2015 and 2016, Argentina will go on reach the finals of Copa America to be disappointed by Chile after taking the game to the penalty shootouts after a goalless match. It was in 2016 that Messi would announce his first retirement from international football. After four consecutive losses in finals, he probably thought it was time to hang up the boots. He stated, "I tried my hardest. The team has ended for me, a decision made."
But soon after, he reversed his decision to try one last time in the 2018 World Cup. Following a poor qualification campaign, expectations were kept low. But having a player like Messi in your team is always brings a ray of hope. It was evidently his prowess that helped the Argentinian national team cross the group stage round in Russia with a win, a draw and a loss. But even he was no match to a star-studded French team that kicked them out of the tournament in a thrilling match that saw 7 goals being scored.
Following the early exit from the tournament, criticism mounted on the Argentinian due to which speculations rose of his second retirement. However, he was called up for the national team again.
Finally, a trophy in hand
In 2021, finally, Messi holds in his palms the trophy he coveted since it first evaded him. As he stands tall after silencing his critics, we can't help but think that the debate of the best football player of all time is finally over.