DOHA, Qatar -- The blue-and-white wall of Argentina fans launched into another rendition of their World Cup anthem as fulltime approached at Lusail Stadium.
“Maradona,” they sang, “is cheering Lionel on” from heaven.
The parallels between the two all-time greats of Argentine soccer, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, are becoming ever more striking in Qatar.
Just like the 1986 World Cup seemed to be a highlight reel for Maradona, Messi has made his mark on this tournament with a string of spectacular goals and assists, carrying Argentina’s class of 2022 into the final.
There have always been echoes of Maradona in Messi — his size, his dribbling skills, his quick feet, his wand of a left foot.
Add in the leadership and fighting qualities he has shown throughout the tournament and it really does feel like Messi is imbued with the spirit of Maradona as he closes in on soccer’s ultimate prize.
“Messi is playing the Maradona role in the World Cup,” Jorge Valdano, who was in Argentina’s victorious World Cup squad in 1986, said in an interview to TyC Sports channel.
That was clear to see in Messi’s latest stirring performance as Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday to advance to the World Cup final for the sixth time.
And nothing encapsulated his magnificence more than his assist for the third goal, scored by Julian Alvarez.
Receiving the ball on the touchline just inside Croatia’s half, Messi lifted the ball over the challenge of Josko Gvardiol and sprinted down the right flank. Gvardiol chased him, constantly grabbing the jersey of the Argentina captain, and was then bewitched as Messi dropped his shoulder and swiveled the other way to turn and burst into the area. Then came the simple cross with his right foot that Alvarez swept home.
It was another moment of magic in a tournament that has been full of them by Messi.
“Personally,” Messi said, “I can say that I feel very happy in this whole World Cup. I am enjoying it a lot and luckily enough I can help my whole squad to make things happen.”
After the match, an Argentine reporter conducting a post-match interview with Messi broke off from asking questions and told him that, whatever happened in the final, he had succeeded in making a mark on every Argentine’s life and was bringing joy to the country.
And for Messi, it is now about more than just winning soccer matches.
“It is no longer only the result but the road we have traveled,” he said. “Before in Argentina, it was valued to win or lose, but I think people now value other things.”
That may be so, but winning the World Cup would cement his legacy, allowing him to join Pele and Maradona in the pantheon of soccer’s greatest players. He might be there already, but being a World Cup winner would end the debate.
Messi reiterated that this would most probably be his last dance at a World Cup — he will turn 39 during the 2026 tournament in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
And he's been doing plenty of dancing, on the field after matches and in the locker room, as Argentina has rebounded with five wins following a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its World Cup opener.
“It was an acid test for this whole squad but this squad proved how strong we are,” Messi said. “We won the next matches. It was very difficult what we did because every match was a final and this was a mental load because we knew things would be more complicated for us.
“We managed to win five finals and I hope it will be this way for the last game. Internally, we were confident that we would make it because we know what we are capable of as a squad.”
After the victory over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, Messi said Maradona — who died two years ago — was looking over the team as Argentina came through a heated, fiery match.
“Diego is watching us from heaven,” Messi said. “He is pushing us. I hope it stays like that until the end.”
Well, Messi will be there at the end. And he is doing his very best impression of Maradona along the way.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports