At the end of an anthology final, when Lionel Messi leaned over to kiss the World Cup, we thought we saw the carefree young prodigy of his debut.
As if, at 36, finally winning this trophy that he coveted so much for his country freed him from the weight of years and responsibilities.
Then, the "Pulga" raised its head.
His beard reappeared as he celebrated that title with an Argentinian people who finally adored him in their proper measure, arranging him to the left of Maradona with that third supreme trophy brought to his country.
The shadow of the small attacker has lengthened further.
Here is Lionel Messi (35) among the legends of football, these envied and adored world champions, which heroes like Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini or Ferenc Puskas have never managed to be.
With this 41st trophy of his long and successful career, the most prestigious, Messi lands at the top of the pyramid of football monsters, up to his compatriot Diego Maradona, crowned in 1986.
And if there is a match with "King" Pelé, the only player with three world champions, but who has never played for a European club, the Argentinian's majestic record may be difficult to match... Even Cristiano Ronaldo, five times Ballon d'Or, finds himself distanced: at 37, the Portuguese will probably never be world champion and bowed to his eternal rival, "an incredible, magical, top player", he had summarized in November.
A completed list
In Argentina, the coronation of Albiceleste triggered scenes of ecstasy.
Until Sunday, the fans considered Messi immense but there was only one "Dios", Diego Maradona, the "Pibe de Oro".
The third star will change everything.
"Now I know which player will take my place in football, and his name is Lionel Messi," Maradona prophesied in 2010.
Besides, Messi has won a lot more than Maradona and Pelé.
Seven Ballons d'Or, four Champions Leagues, an avalanche of championships and cups with Barcelona then with Paris SG, a Copa America in 2021 and therefore this World Cup.
He is the captain of the Argentine selection, its top scorer (98 goals), the one who has worn the jersey the most (172 selections).
Forgotten, the disappointments of 2014 (defeat in the final) or 2018 (failure against France in the eighth).
Erased, his brief international retirement in 2016, after a third defeat in the Copa América final.
An unstoppable attacker
Now a polytheist, Argentina will forever venerate the kid from Rosario, who entered the firmament with the third star of Albiceleste, 36 years after the maradonian epic of 1986.
Messi was born a year later, in 1987, in Rosario, in the north of the country.
When the planet discovered this kid with long hair, it was moved by the fate of the little left-hander who, according to the established history, left Argentina at the age of 13 to find a club in Barcelona which financed his medical treatment to settle his growth problems.
Launched in the Barça first team in 2004, the striker left the club in 2021, becoming the club's most successful player by accumulating records: top scorer in Barça history, top scorer in La Liga history Spaniard, record holder for the number of goals in a calendar year (91 in 2012)...
An exceptional player, Messi has developed innate qualities that make the difference: speed, vision, devastating dribbling and surgical finishing.
"No defensive system can stop him, no coach. He is too strong", summed up one day Pep Guardiola, his ex-mentor at Barça.
A father with a tidy life
In Qatar, Messi added a weapon to his panoply: a touch of aggressiveness in the attitude, which is so popular in Argentina.
We saw him display an unknown face of lodger, vindictive and angry after the victory of the Albiceleste in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands, with his now famous "Qué miras, bobo? (What are you looking at, moron?, Ed)", addressed to the Dutchman Wout Weghorst, author of a double, during his live interview.
Despite everything, Messi will never have the almost mystical aura that surrounds Maradona.
But he's not looking for her.
The speeches of the PSG striker remain rare and without relief.
His many tattoos are the only eccentricity of this family man with a tidy life.
Taste for the game, touching shyness and childish smile have also earned the Argentinian very positive opinions, unlike the "bling-bling" of Cristiano Ronaldo, an image only tarnished by a conviction for tax evasion in 2017.
Despite everything, Messi has managed to maintain an ideal son-in-law status, in a relationship with Antonella, a childhood friend, and father of Thiago, Mateo and Ciro.
The eldest of the three toddlers also measures the stature of his father, as Messi once said, all smiles: "Every time I leave the house, (Thiago) gets angry and asks me: + Dad, are you still going to score goals?
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