Among the many takeaways from the just concluded World Cup, none is more poignant than the realisation that Lionel Messi’s successful triumph at the fifth attempt was premised on a careful plan to pace himself to be at the height of his physical prowess during the Qatar 2022 event. Greats like Messi are usually quick learners but in this case it took several years of Champions League and Argentina heartbreak for Messi to realise he was missing out on a prime target of his illustrious career by being burnt out during the season home straight.
Messi had watched in agony as his chief rival in the annual race for the Ballon d’Or Cristiano Ronaldo picked up one Champions League winners medal after another because the Portuguese star was almost always at his best after March. Burdened by carrying an ageing Barcelona side on his shoulders, the Argentina skipper was on the other hand, almost always faded by March of each season. This explains the innumerable times he was written off as past his best whenever Blaugrana were eliminated in Champions League quarter finals.
In more ways than one, it’s correct to infer that Messi won eleven Spanish Primera Liga titles with Barcelona compared to CR7’s three whereas the former Real Madrid target man won five Champions League titles as opposed to Messi’s four because the Portugal legend concentrated more on Europe. By implication, Argentine’s ability to finally emulate his idol Diego Armando Maradona at the advanced footballing age of 35 was a culmination of a careful plan orchestrated once Messi moved from Barca to Paris Saint Germain.
During transfer negotiations to the French capital, the twice Golden Ball winner specifically requested that the club must allow him to give precedence to his Argentina duties. It’s why Messi was always allowed early departures and late returns from South American World Cup qualifiers. It’s also why Messi missed the final two weeks of Ligue One action in the lead up to Qatar 2022. The legend had to be kept fresh.
Besides, the low intensity nature of Ligue One has been of particular help. The Parisian moneybags can cruise to domestic success with limited or no Messi input whereas at Barcelona the opposite was true. This is why Messi has been at his freshest. Over two and a half seasons in Paris, he’s played about the same number of matches as he used to feature for Blaugrana in one calendar year. France’s Antoine Greizmann has benefitted from identical freshness, with the 31-year-old putting in one great display after another courtesy of less physical burden at Atletico Madrid.
It goes without saying the soon to be eight time Ballon d’Or winner was a better player when Argentina imploded to a 0-4 reverse to Germany at South Africa 2010 and fell to Germany at Brazil 2014. What has changed? Why has Messi scored more goals in 2022 (18) and 2021 (9) than at any other time in his international career? Age is wisdom? Not a chance.
In addition to pacing himself to perfection, Argentina learned how to play to Messi’s strengths. Pumas players no longer play with Messi but for him, a phenomenon they first utilised to perfection at the 2021 Copa America when they outgunned Brazil 1-0 infront of their own fans.