Argentina and Lionel Messi are back in the World Cup finals. Photo: twitter.com/Argentina

By MARK LORENZANA

Argentinian soccer superstar Lionel Messi has won it all in his legendary career that has spanned almost two decades.

He’s still missing an important piece of hardware in his trophy case, though, and perhaps the most important: a World Cup championship.

Messi and the Argentinian National Team will get another chance at World Cup glory as they handily beat Croatia, 3-0, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, in their semifinals match at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar. They now await their finals opponent — the winner of the other semifinals match between France and Morocco on Wednesday, Dec. 14. The World Cup finals will be played on Sunday, Dec. 18.

The last time Messi and Argentina reached the World Cup finals was in 2014, where they lost a heartbreaker, 1–0, to Germany. Before that, Argentina — led by another soccer legend, Diego Maradona — faced West Germany in the finals way back in 1990 in Italy, where the South American team likewise lost, 1-0, in a much-disputed penalty awarded to the European team by Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal Méndez.

After stumbling in their first game in the group stages in this World Cup, losing to Saudi Arabia in a stunner, the Argentinians have been humming. They won their next two games in Group C against Mexico and Poland, beat Australia 2-1 in the round of 16, won a hard-fought squeaker against a tough Netherlands team and breezed through Croatia, who has been punching above its weight all tournament long.

Make no mistake: Argentina has been humming because, well, Messi has been humming. He is, as always, both the heart and soul — and, more importantly — the engine of this Argentinian squad. A Messi that is rounding into form is a scary Messi — and a scary Argentina — regardless of who Argentina’s finals opponent will be, although Morocco and France will undoubtedly have something to say about that.

Messi has scored five goals thus far: a goal apiece against the Saudis and Mexico in the group stages, a goal against Australia in the round of 16, a goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and a goal against Croatia in the semifinals (the opening goal, off a penalty kick). He has added three assists as well to those goals, the last one a helper to Julián Álvarez, who scored brace against Croatia.

It’s safe to say that with every match, Messi’s confidence is growing.

“I don’t know if it’s my best World Cup or not. I’ve been enjoying this a lot for a long time,” Messi said after their semifinals win. “We were confident that this group was going to pull it off. We know what we are, and we ask the people to believe in us.”

Messi has played in five World Cups so far, and has led Argentina to at least four quarterfinals. He’s bound for his second final, has been playing like the superstar that he is, and so it’s understandable that he’s been enjoying himself so far.

He’s also 35 years old now, not exactly a spring chicken, although still performing on the field at a high level — playing at the highest level internationally, it goes without saying.

This may well be Messi’s last shot at World Cup glory, and he has admitted as much; he may not play in the next one.

“Surely, this will be my final World Cup,” Messi said in an interview with ESPN before the tournament. “I’m counting down the days until the World Cup. The truth is, there’s a little anxiety, saying: ‘Well, we’re here, what’s going to happen? It’s my last one, how’s it going to go?’ On one hand, I can’t wait for it to arrive, but I’m also desperate for it to go well.”

It has gone swimmingly well for Messi and Argentina so far. What remains to be seen is who will hoist the trophy when all is said and done.

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