Lionel Messi once wilted under World Cup pressure. Now he’s free

LUSAIL, Qatar — It was nearly 2 a.m. by the time Lionel Andrés Messi, eyes wide and psyche weary, emerged to confront the final spotlight of his night. Cameras had chased him from the doorstep of Argentina’s team bus through the bowels of Lusail Stadium, from the serenity of privacy into the eye of the storm. They had captured his searching glances around this grandiose arena that became a madhouse on Saturday night. They zoomed in on a bearded face once incapable of hiding pressure. With midnight near, they’d broadcast his brilliance to the world, and now, hours later, they clamored for one last glimpse.

Mic-wielding reporters rushed toward him, creating a ruckus. In a previously dormant post-match interview zone, heads turned. Journalists all but climbed atop one another to ask Messi about the game that, if not for his goal, could have ended his World Cup career.

And Messi, unflinching, placed his hands on his hips; he scanned the throng of mostly unfamiliar faces; he seemed wholly unperturbed by the two-dozen recorders and phones stuffed in his face; and he smiled.

“This brings us more calmness,” he said of a win that seemed anything but calm. But here, at what will “probably” be his last World Cup, he really felt it.

For years, he’d wilted and sometimes cracked under the very pressure that swamped him on Saturday. In 2018, he bore the unbearable burden of an expectant nation which simultaneously entrusted and doubted him. On Matchday 2 of a World Cup that began in shocking disappointment, he shut his eyes and brought a pale right hand to his pained forehead. Weighed down by the proverbial monkey on his back, by the World Cup-sized hole in his trophy case, he failed to lift an incoherent Argentina team out of its malaise. And many assumed he never would.

But here, four-and-a-half years later, at the so-called Last Dance, he feels at ease.

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after a win over Mexico at the 2022 World Cup. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after a win over Mexico at the 2022 World Cup. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

At Lusail on Saturday, he flashed a grin as he walked down a hallway upon arrival. As he awaited the Argentine anthem, with 88,966 people making relentless noise all around him, he squinted up into the 700 level of this gargantuan building and seemed unshaken. His teammates very much were shaken; for 45 minutes, they played as if paralyzed by pressure. They played in fear of making the mistake that could end their World Cup after just two games.

“The first half was very tense,” Messi said in Spanish. “We couldn't find spaces.” His teammates, shackled by the occasion, couldn’t open Mexico up, and so Messi was forced to wander, crowded out of the game.

But at halftime, they regrouped. And they preached patience — “patience knowing that we have Leo,” midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said in Spanish. Because “when he has to appear, he appears.”

And in the 64th minute, sure enough, at the top of the box, with millions of fans worldwide rising in anticipation, he appeared.

Messi hasn’t always appeared on the biggest of stages, especially in Argentine white and sky blue. Here, though, at his fifth World Cup, he’s been able to escape the crushing weight of expectation that inhibited him in the past.

Perhaps it’s simply the peace of mind and perspective that come with age. “I feel more experienced and mature,” the 35-year-old said through a translator at a news conference earlier this week. He has learned to reflect, to “give more importance to small details,” to savor moments rather than be devoured by them. “Today, I'm more conscious of everything,” he said. “I try to make the most of those moments, enjoy them.”

Perhaps it is also that his trophy case now has a Copa America. Argentina’s 2021 triumph in Brazil, Messi said, “makes us feel more relaxed. We’re calmer, which allows us to work in a different way, without anxiety.”

He admitted Saturday that anxiety resurged in the wake of Argentina’s startling loss to Saudi Arabia. It provoked horror and familiar skepticism. But the win over Mexico, inspired by his own heroism, lifted “a weight off our shoulders,” Messi said. It was “a reason for joy and peace of mind.”

He exuded both as he sped through the post-match interview area surrounded by a few handlers. He exuded the latter, especially, as he held court with reporters for several minutes, throughout an interview he had no obligation to give. He analyzed the game lucidly. There was a lightness about him that, for people who’ve covered him since his teenage years, was refreshing to see.

When he finished, he continued on through the maze, snaking out toward the bus. Intrepid journalists and credentialed-but-fawning fans chased after him. They pressed for one last answer. They snuck in one more photo.

And Messi, walking briskly but not hurriedly, once again smiled.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Argentina v Mexico - Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar - November 26, 2022 Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after the match REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after the match against Mexico. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)