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Why Lionel Messi, with smack talk and heavenly passes, is better than ever at final World Cup

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during a World Cup quarterfinal match against Netherlands, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during a World Cup quarterfinal match against Netherlands, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

LUSAIL, Qatar — The darkest moments of Lionel Messi’s Argentina career began with a lonely walk. He broke from a shoulder-to-shoulder line of tense teammates and crept into a searing spotlight. It was the final chapter of a frenzied night, Argentina’s first attempt of a penalty shootout after a 120-minute beating. And with every agonizingly slow step, from midfield to the penalty spot, pressure seized Messi’s magical limbs.

It was June 26, 2016, six years before he strode into a similar spotlight here at the World Cup. And on that night in New Jersey, with a lesser trophy within reach, he glanced toward goal with a pained squint. Seconds later, he blazed a ball over a crossbar. He grasped his jersey with both hands and furiously tugged. He grimaced as he retraced his steps back to midfield, and covered his face in horror.

Messi was “broken,” his gran amigo Sergio Aguero later said, after Argentina lost that Copa America final. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen him,” Aguero said. Messi used a dugout and supportive teammates to keep his distraught body upright. After clocks struck midnight, he quit the national team. “I tried so hard to be [a] champion with Argentina, but it didn’t happen, I couldn’t do it,” he said. The mission, and the crushing weight of it, was just “not for me.”

All of which was the context for his latest lonely walk, from midfield to another penalty spot, into another searing spotlight, for another first attempt after another 120-minute beating here on another frenzied night, this time in a World Cup quarterfinal.

This time, when pressure pummeled him early Saturday, Messi ignored it.

Because this time, at his last World Cup, Messi is changed.

He bore his eyes into the ball and, with the calmness of a shy kid at a Rosario park surrounded by siblings and cousins, he duped a Dutch goalkeeper and rolled Argentina into a shootout lead. Over three unforgettable hours at the Lusail Stadium, ruthless gamesmanship and 17 yellow cards and relentless noise, he led Argentina to the semis with unlocked brilliance, via limbs no longer possessed by pressure, because, as Argentine legend Jorge Valdano said recently: “He’s liberated.”

For years, when Argentina games would devolve into barbaric madhouses, they’d often devour Messi and his magic. But here and now, feeling “more experienced and mature,” he not only participated in Friday’s mayhem; he rose above it. He scored a goal, and celebrated it with arms outstretched, then waltzed over toward the Netherlands bench and planted himself there, for a couple iconic seconds, his palms wide open by the side of his ears.

“I felt disrespected by [Netherlands coach Louis] Van Gaal after his pregame comments,” Messi said postgame. “And some Dutch players talked too much during the game.”

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates in front of Netherlands players at the end of the World Cup quarterfinal match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates in front of Netherlands players at the end of the World Cup quarterfinal match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

He talked back with his mouth, but also with his twinkling toes. He dropped either shoulder to shake defenders. Amid furious motion and a constant din, he stayed serene. He walked, leisurely, searching for space, as he does more often than anybody else in modern soccer, turning a trait typically associated with laziness into a superpower.

He almost stood still for moments in the 34th minute, surveying and processing the chaos around him, before he detected space, received the ball and ascended to another planet. He drove away from two Dutchmen but saw six more impeding him, so he rose into the sky for a bird’s-eye view, and picked out an extraterrestrial pass only findable via satellite.

His first-half touches and the weight of his passes were nearly perfect. His second-half penalty, converted after goalkeeper Andries Noppert flagrantly tried and failed to faze him, was precise.

Argentina's Lionel Messi talks with Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert before attempting a penalty during a World Cup quarterfinal at Lusail Stadium on December 09, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi talks with Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert before attempting a penalty during a World Cup quarterfinal at Lusail Stadium on December 09, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Messi played the entire match as if at ease — which is how he’s felt this entire month and last. He has found peace of mind and perspective. He has learned to reflect, to “give more importance to small details,” as he said; to savor moments on the sport’s biggest stage rather than shrinking from them. And with a Copa America title finally in tow, as of last summer, he feels “more relaxed,” and “calmer, which allows us to work in a different way, without anxiety,” he said.

So the pressure, which is still ever-present, is no longer an impediment. Messi has emerged from under it as a different man — and, by extension, a different player, an incomparable one akin only to his mid-20s Barcelona self.

In the past, s***housery — a soccer term for devious and ugly foul play — made him a curtailed sideshow. On Friday, and into the wee hours of Saturday morning, he was a s***housing protagonist. Amid the bedlam that followed the shootout’s conclusion, after other Argentina players rubbed defeat into the faces of shattered opponents, Messi sought out Dutch coaches and raised his right hand, chomping his four fingers and thumb together in a talking motion, taunting them.

Not long after that confrontation, during a television interview, he saw Netherlands striker Wout Weghorst walking by. “What are you looking at, bobo?” he snapped, using a Spanish word for “fool.”

Messi celebrated boisterously, his core vibe joyous rather than relieved. He spoke to reporters graciously and lucidly, as he’s been doing all tournament. He is now two steps away, on to a semifinal against Croatia (Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo), who overwhelmed him four years ago in Russia, and who’ll likely tackle and crunch and hack him just as the Dutch did Friday.

And perhaps the Croats will talk too. If so, all the better.

“I think Leo felt a bit attacked,” Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni said after Friday’s game. “And [he] demonstrated that he is the best of all time.”

Lionel Messi celebrates after Argentina defeated the Netherlands on penalties at Lusail Stadium on December 09, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi celebrates after Argentina defeated the Netherlands on penalties at Lusail Stadium on December 09, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)


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