FIFA World Cup: Messi leaves the door open for 2026, but is it the right move?

A year after Qatar 2022, the icon says ’95 to 100 per cent’ Argentines now love him

Lionel Messi holds aloft the FIFA World Cup 2022 with teammates (photo:
Lionel Messi holds aloft the FIFA World Cup 2022 with teammates (photo:

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Last year around this time, Leo Messi had the world at his feet. Just at a time when the world thought that he may have to live with the tag of one of the greatest football players of all times never to hold aloft the FIFA World Cup, destiny offered the Argentine genius a chance to change the script. 

He did, and how. Qatar 2022 unfolded like a dream for him, and when he said it could be his last World Cup, it seemed an obvious decision for the then 35-year-old after having scaled the pinnacle — and getting the monkey off his shoulder in comparison with the late great El Diego.

But a year on, he now seems to be toying with the idea of giving it another shot — a thought which will polarise his legion of fans. 

In an interview late last week on Star+, Messi — who seems to be carrying some of his old magic back to the South American qualifiers for 2026 — dropped hints that he would like to be there more than ever before, but will take it one step at a time.

Messi with his teammates after winning the Leagues Cup for Inter Miami (photo: social media)
Messi with his teammates after winning the Leagues Cup for Inter Miami (photo: social media)

The obvious question which follows is, does he need to? Even if he manages to retain 50 per cent of his earlier intensity at age 39, it could be a mouthwatering prospect for soccer fans in the USA, who will be the main hosts of the showpiece, along with Canada and Mexico. 

Here’s what Messi actually said in the interview: "Today, the only thing I think about is getting to the Copa America well and being able to compete in it. Fighting it again like we always did, trying to be champions. Then time will tell if I’m there (at the World Cup) or not. I am going to arrive at an age (39) that I normally wouldn’t be able to play in the World Cup. I said that I don’t think I’m going to be there. It seemed that after the World Cup I was retiring. Now I want to there more than ever.’’

‘’(But) I’m not thinking about the World Cup and I’m not saying 100 per cent that I won’t be there because anything may happen. Given my age, the most normal thing is that I won’t be there. Then we’ll see to what extent. Maybe we do well in Copa America and it happens, everything so that we continue. Maybe not. Being realistic, it’s difficult.’’ 

It’s difficult to assume if anything was lost in translation, but there is no doubting Messi's desire to leave his options open. Therein lies the danger of the demystification of Messi the legend — in case he wants to stretch his international career beyond the Copa next year. One can look back in history to bring up Pele’s example when he was hired with great fanfare by New York Cosmos, which gave a great push to the North American league, but ‘The King’ was done with international football by then.        

It’s no surprise that Messi has infused fresh life into Major League Soccer (MLS) in his first season with Inter Miami, helping them win the inaugural Leagues Cup and winning the Golden Boot of the tournament. The short MLS season is now done, but all of Miami’s matches have been already sold out for the 2024 season. 

At the end of the day, Messi is the best judge of whether there is enough match-preparedness for  a demanding event such as the Copa — forget a World Cup — with fewer club matches on offer for him these days. The rigour is like chalk-and-cheese from his Barcelona days, with whom he had won everything possible at the club level, not to speak of the bulk of his eight Ballon d’Or trophies from FIFA. 

The institution of Ballon d’Or, in fact, has acquired a repetitive sheen, with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo taking turns to lay their hands on it for more than a decade. This time around, critics were vocal that Manchester City’s Erling Halland would have been the right candidate — but then marketability is the name of the game.  

Has the World Cup changed the perception about him in Argentina over the past year? ‘’I had a bad time before. My family and the people who love me did too. [Critics in Argentina] were very unfair to a generation of players and they said a lot of bad things about me. But I’m not spiteful,’’ Messi said in the interview. 

‘’I feel it's like a triumph for me to have changed that situation and won over all the people of Argentina. Today, 95 or 100 per cent of Argentines love me and that’s a beautiful feeling.’’ 

It’s certainly a great space for Messi to be in, something which nobody will grudge him. But like all good things…

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