In his 1003rd match as a senior professional, Lionel Messi seeks the milestone that means most. A World Cup would rank above his seven Ballons D’Or and at least as high as owning medals for every major club trophy he has competed for. He has a good chance of it, largely because, 1,000-odd games into a peerless career, nobody yet can confidently claim they have worked out how to stop him.
Not even studious experts like Raphael Varane, who, good health permitting, will lead the title-holding France defence in Sunday evening’s final against Messi’s Argentina.
Varane spent the best part of a decade competing directly with Messi in what was club football’s absolute summit duel, when Messi’s Barcelona and Varane’s Real Madrid dominated the Champions League and made clasico meetings the standard-setter of glamour and technical excellence.
Varane against Messi has featured excellent French tackles and shown off Varane's knack of keeping pace with the very best opponent. Results in their jousts are fairly even. But, still, Varane will vividly remember being nutmegged by Messi, still impish deep into his 30s, and being on the wrong end of a Messi hat-trick.
“The best I have ever played against,” Varane calls Messi. Having watched Messi torture the admired Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol in Tuesday’s semi-final, Varane can only advise extreme caution and vigilance to a France back four including a centre-back, Jules Kounde, covering at right-back; a reserve left-back, Theo Hernandez, covering for his injured brother, Lucas; and, perhaps, a central partner for Varane - Ibrahima Konate - making only his fifth start for Les Bleus.
The taming of Messi, if France are to manage it, also depends on midfield. The French coach, Didier Deschamps, has ingeniously compensated for several absent leaders by assigning a deeper role to Antoine Griezmann.
Is there an elite footballer anywhere with a more rounded knowledge of Messi both as teammate and rival? Griezmann has been on the same pitch as Messi in more than one in ten of Messi’s 1,000-plus match odyssey, first as an opponent in La Liga, where Griezmann has spent most of his senior career with Atletico Madrid, and, over two seasons, as a Barcelona colleague.
Safe to report that Messi and Griezmann can both look back on happier attacking partnerships in their careers than the one they shared in a declining Barca until 2021. It was a spell that gave Griezmann a close-up view of Messi’s stern authority in the dressing-room.
On the pitch, he too seldom tuned in to Messi’s instincts and movements. Griezmann’s capacity to second-guess those instincts may have a major bearing on Sunday night. If one of them comfortably outperforms the other in the final, he could emerge as Player of the Tournament.
“We know what Messi represents to the history of our sport,” insisted Hugo Lloris, the France captain. “But this is a match between France and Argentina.” Lloris has been with Les Bleus long enough to have been in the squad when Messi scored his one goal against France, back in 2009. Since then, Lloris has endured some high-score hammerings against Messi-inspired teams in the Champions League.
For Ousmane Dembele, Messi represents a huge chapter in his own personal history. When the France winger was a 20-year-old prodigy being coveted by various superclubs five years ago, he made his choice because “Messi made me fall in love with Barcelona.” Dembele came to Camp Nou, for a lofty €107m from Borussia Dortmund, and was assigned the neighbouring locker in the Barca dressing-toom to Messi’s.
“He gave me a lot,” recalled Dembele. “I am so pleased to have had him as a team-mate for four years. He was good with the younger players.” Dembele had some low times at Barcelona and needed the guidance of Messi, the club’s most influential figure at the time.
As for Kylian Mbappe, who will start on the opposite wing to Dembele, Messi has, at Paris Saint-Germain, helped guide a young, glittering career ever upwards. With the pair of them chasing Qatar 2022’s Golden Boot award, on five goals each at this World Cup and Messi ahead on number of assists, Mbappe is obliged to reflect that, normally, Messi’s assists work very much in Mbappe’s favour.
In the space of just over a season playing together at Paris Saint-Germain. Mbappe and Messi have shared in 26 goals that one has set up for the other. That’s in just 48 games in tandem. And Messi sets up more goals for Mbappe than the other way around.
If each of these France players has his own catalogue of Messi moments and Messi memories layered with awe and a sense of privilege, they also have the one thing Messi feels the lack of. Mbappe, Griezmann, Dembele and Varane have already won a World Cup. Messi knows them all well enough to be sure they want another, indifferent to the fact it would leave the great Messi story feeling incomplete.