Despite the tattoos and beard, Lionel Messi still looks like a little boy who loves playing a game with a ball.
This is the simplicity and beauty that Messi will always be remembered by – a boy with a ball who astonished the world with his wondrous skills and humility.
What a privilege it has been to watch Messi fulfil his dream of becoming a world champion with his talented teammates and a grateful nation by his side.
There seemed to be an inevitability to Messi’s triumph. Having faltered against Saudi Arabia in an opening-round match, the wonder from Argentina was apparently determined not to be disappointed again.
In game after game, he made the ball his own, conjuring up goals with his marvellous feet and imagination.
And after each goal, in a familiar and touching ritual, Messi pointed to the sky with a kiss in homage to a grandmother who knew that, given the chance, the diminutive prodigy could make a ball do magical things.
“Put him on and you’ll see how well the little boy plays,” Messi’s late grandmother told a sceptical coach a long time ago.
That “little boy” has repaid her faith in him many times over many years – from Rosario, Argentina to Barcelona and Paris. He has become rich and famous. Perhaps as famous and adored as Muhammad Ali.
But Messi has not forgotten that it all began with a pitch, a ball and a grandmother’s hope. Unlike some of his contemporaries, the fame, wealth and adoration have not turned the charmed boy with a ball into a preening prima donna.
Messi shares the explosions of joy he is responsible for with the rest of us. His outstretched arms invite us to join in the celebration. He wants us to feel what he feels in those pristine moments – happiness.
He did it again and again in Qatar. So, Messi will be remembered for his generosity, too. He reminded us of when we were young and the bliss we tasted, from time to time, while playing football in the sun.
After winning the World Cup, Messi stood ramrod straight on a white podium waiting to hoist the trophy. The emir of Qatar offered Messi a “bisht”, a traditional black, gold-rimmed Arab cloak.
Messi received the garment which is bestowed as a sign of respect with a nod and a smile. He applauded. Messi understood, it seems to me, that it was important to pause to recognise that while he was Argentinian, he, like Ali, belonged to the world at that time, in that place.
By donning the bisht, Messi also embraced tolerance and understanding that his hosts would do well to remember. He rejected, as well, the predictable cynicism and racism of the tournament’s petty gallery of insular naysayers. Their vitriol and ignorance only underscored the strength of the man who, throughout his career, has celebrated the diversity that the World Cup embodies.
That strength was on display whenever Messi was tested during the tournament.
A two-goal lead against the Netherlands in a raucous quarterfinal evaporated in an instant. Rather than wilt, Messi – perhaps spurred on by the Dutch coach’s suggestion that he was not much of a force – played with singular purpose and a determination to prevail in a breathtaking penalty shootout.
Next, against a stubborn Croatia, Messi’s genius was in full bloom. His memorable run began on the touchline near mid-field. He nudged the ball ahead while a defender tried, in vain, to thwart the brilliance to come. As he darted towards the goal, Messi stopped, bobbed and weaved, the ball following him unquestioningly. Then he slipped the ball passed the bewildered defender and onto a teammate’s welcoming foot.
The goal produced a roar – a mixture of amazement and admiration – that a few special athletes can elicit. Messi turned, arms aloft, towards the pulsating stands. In return, the crowd shouted “Messi,” “Messi,” “Messi”, as if to acknowledge the phenomenon they and we had just witnessed.
It was, to my mind, the moment of the tournament – when a great athlete confirmed his greatness and shared it with an awe-struck audience near and far.
Now, formidable France – and, in particular, its elegant striker, Kylian Mbappé – stood between Messi and history.
Up 2-0 with 10 minutes or so until full-time, the World Cup seemed in Messi’s grasp – finally. France, however, showed their mettle. Mbappé scored twice, sending an already stunning match into the frenzy of extra time.
Messi was tested once more. Doubt and disillusionment were replaced by a champion’s will to win. Messi prodded home another goal before Mbappé replied.
On to penalties. When the drama was over, Messi dropped to his knees, overwhelmed and relieved before he was engulfed by his teammates and coaches. We were there with him in spirit, thankful that an incomparable player – that “little boy” with a ball – had won the trophy that had eluded him.
Messi’s grandmother would have been proud.
She would have been proud not only because he had won, but of the quiet grace that her grandson then showed by accepting a simple gesture of gratitude from his hosts for showcasing his incomparable talents on the grandest stage of all.
With the golden cup in hand and the bisht draped around him, Messi hopped and shouted with joy — and we hopped and shouted with joy alongside.
Messi’s journey from Rosario to Doha transcends borders and nationalities. Messi is proof that it is possible to reach the pinnacle and retain the modesty that his humble beginnings and grandmother no doubt ingrained in him.
Football is a global sport and Messi is its global ambassador. We are fortunate to be able to watch the marvel dance with a ball.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.