Lionel Messi of Argentina is presented with their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 trophy after the team's victory by Gianni Infantino (L), President of FIFA and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (C), Emir of Qatar. Alamy Stock Photo
talking point

The bittersweet feeling of watching Lionel Messi

The 35-year-old fulfilled a lifelong ambition by winning the World Cup on Sunday, but some will have felt conflicted when observing the star in action.

IN 100 YEARS’ time, the defining image of the Qatar World Cup may well be a joyful Lionel Messi holding the trophy aloft while wearing a bisht.

Some people were critical in reaction to the emir of the host country’s ostensible insistence on the star wearing this black cloak that has been a popular clothing choice in the Arab world for thousands of years.

To some observers, it felt inappropriate that Messi’s Argentina jersey was partly obscured during one of the country’s greatest-ever sporting moments.

Yet in many ways, it was the perfect metaphor for the tournament writ large and just another instance of blatant sportswashing.

From the outset, it has been clear that Qatar rather than Fifa has been dictating the rules for this event — the last-minute banning of beer in stadiums and the sudden imposition of draconian rules for teams who make the innocuous gesture of wearing rainbow armbands are prime examples. The organisation that constantly preaches the virtues of inclusive values has shamefully and hypocritically bowed to pressure from the host country, effectively acceding to Qatar’s substantially less tolerant views on the LGBTQ+ community.

The image of Messi lifting the trophy consequently symbolised the dual feelings that most conscientious fans will have wrestled with throughout the tournament — the purity of watching the player seen by many as the greatest ever perform wonderfully for the umpteenth time, and the thinly veiled propaganda that has characterised this World Cup arguably more than any other in history (although Argentina 1978, in particular, runs it close).

The bisht, therefore, serves as a subtle reminder that the extraordinary entertainment unfolding is compromised and that thousands of people have reportedly died for the sake of our entertainment.

And watching Messi in particular serves up complicated feelings.

The sheer footballing genius that is patently obvious almost every time you watch the PSG star in action was emphasised abundantly on Sunday evening — the exquisite pass he played in one of the greatest-ever World Cup final goals scored was one instance of many that have lit up the tournament in which great goals have been as commonplace as Qatari apologists.

But there is also a sense of melancholy at seeing such a unique and exceptional footballer at play.

Many fans will have grown up watching Messi. As remarkably talented a player as he continues to be, it is also impossible to ignore his physically diminished state.

Where once he ran, now he walks for much of the game. You could argue he is a smarter and wilier player than before, but he is still understandably a very different and ultimately inferior version of the man who netted 73 times in 60 appearances during the 2011-12 season alone.

Back then, Messi was portrayed as an individual who could do no wrong. He was often compared favourably to the only other player routinely in the conversation as the greatest of his era, Cristiano Ronaldo.

The ex-Man United and Real Madrid star was the extrovert who made his often unhappy feelings unknown on the pitch, and regularly played on the edge — the infamous wink after Wayne Rooney’s sending-off for England at the 2006 World Cup seemed to sum up the villainous quality that fans and sections of the press tended to ascribe to the supremely talented Portuguese player.

Messi, by contrast, had such a squeaky-clean image that it was even claimed by some pundits early in his career that he ‘never dives’ — plenty of video evidence to the contrary has since emerged.

Yet while Messi’s feats of sporting excellence are hard not to admire, whether the player is as admirable off the field as had been widely assumed in his early days is at best open to debate.

Consider, for a moment, another much-discussed superstar, David Beckham.

The former England captain has been widely ridiculed in recent months for reportedly being paid $180 million over 10 years to promote Qatar.

Messi, meanwhile, has signed a similarly lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia, another oppressive regime whose abominable human rights record is comparable to the 2022 World Cup hosts.

The criticism aimed at Messi has been nowhere near as vociferous as what Beckham has endured in recent times, but aside from the fact that only one of them remains an active footballer, is there any significant difference between what both are doing?

As a headline in The Guardian, earlier this year, succinctly put it: ‘Lionel Messi earned $122m last year. He still felt the need to take Saudi money.’

And to quote the article in question: “In Messi, the Saudi government has a premier athlete with a built-in audience and platform ready to be utilized for political gain. While Messi was once lauded for his humanitarian efforts with Unicef and his own charitable foundation, his recent alignment with Saudi raises concerns that he is willing to blatantly disregard human rights in exchange for lucrative deals with brutal dictators.”

On a purely footballing level, there is nothing that can possibly tarnish Messi’s legacy. Now that he has won virtually every trophy possible and wowed fans worldwide with countless goals for close to two decades, there is no caveat or asterisk beside his name.

Yet the bisht felt like a visual representation of the asterisk beside his waning reputation, as well as signifying the dark underbelly that is increasingly appearing at the surface of football, in general, where state-owned clubs are having an increasing stranglehold on the beautiful game.

It is therefore not hard to imagine Messi serving as a posterboy for the 2030 World Cup should Saudi Arabia win the right to host it.

Especially if that scenario transpires, the Argentine superstar is in danger of being remembered as much as a political tool who is expertly adept at softening the image of repressive regimes as he is a man who has brought joy to millions, scoring numerous glorious goals and winning multiple trophies in a manner so spectacular that it has rarely, if ever, been seen.

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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