Messi at the Maracana. Two of football’s most iconic names united, perhaps for the last time. No wonder tickets for Brazil versus Argentina, Tuesday's World Cup qualifier at Rio de Janeiro’s grandest stadium, sold out briskly.
Many of the 70,000 buyers have a motivation beyond supporting a struggling Brazil, winless in three games. Many want to glimpse, live, the greatest player they may ever see. For Cariocas, citizens of Rio, this is probably their last chance.
Messi, now playing his club football in the United States, may not be back this way as an active footballer again, with the most distant of the likely end points of his international career the 2026 World Cup, during which he will turn 39.
There’s a Copa America next summer where he intends to lead the defence of the title, and perhaps there clock up another meeting with Brazil, who Argentina beat in the Maracana final in the last edition.
But at the Maracana, where Messi felt the agony of finishing second in a World Cup final in 2014, there is a sense this visit marks a significant step in a long, gradual farewell tour of sport’s great theatres.
He is making that journey as a proud, driven world champion, in form – he’s the joint top scorer in South American 2026 qualifying so far – and with good cause to look back on a remarkable 12 months.
A year ago, his Argentina were embarking on a World Cup that began with defeat to Saudi Arabia. They ended the month with Messi lifting the prize that completed the dazzling mosaic of his decorated career.
Argentina’s defence of their World Cup hit a rare bump in the road last week, with a home defeat to Uruguay. It is no great setback. They remain top of the 10-team South American table, and, with six teams guaranteed a place at the 2026 finals and the seventh a play-off, the qualifying system easily forgives the odd error.
Reassuring that, for Brazil, who, if they lose to their fiercest rivals this evening, could slip out of the top six, albeit with two thirds of the schedule left to play.
Brazil have stability issues. The 12 fixtures left on the World Cup qualifying schedule and the finals of the Copa in the US next June seem almost certain to be entrusted to a new manager.
Take the word of the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, Ednaldo Rodrigues, and that coach will be Carlo Ancelotti, currently in the last year of his contract at Real Madrid.
Listen to some who are closer to the day-to-day of the Brazilian game than Ancelotti, the Italian with a superb record in European club football, and the better medium-term plan would be to stick with the current, interim manager, Fernando Diniz.
Diniz has had an unusually busy time since taking on his caretaker role in July, sharing responsibility for the national team with his main job as coach of Fluminense.
One branch of his work has gone brilliantly, Fluminense claiming the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League, for the first time in their history earlier this month. Domestically, they have been less consistent, but Diniz’s reputation as an imaginative, and certainly a passionate, manager has grown.
On Tuesday night, the last competitive game in his part-time stint with Brazil, some resourcefulness is required. Injuries have deprived him of the spine of his best XI, with defender Eder Militao, midfield anchor Casemiro and the country’s all-time record goalscorer Neymar all out with injury.
To that list was added Madrid’s Vinicius Junior during last week’s defeat in Colombia, the winger feared – by Ancelotti above all – to have sustained a thigh problem grave enough to rule him out until the new year.
Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus, still in the final stages of recovery from a hamstring problem, may be thrust into the starting line up, and 17-year-old forward Endrick, who came off the bench against Colombia to become Brazil’s youngest debutant for almost 30 years, perhaps invited to add to his eight minutes so far as a full international.
Endrick, boyishly keen to make his home Brazil debut at the fabled Maracana, admits that, like tens of thousands in the audience, the prospect of sharing space with Messi is an added stimulus.
“He’s a phenomenon,” said the teenager. “I just want to make the most of a chance of playing against him, or just being in the same stadium as him to watch him up close. I’m more used to seeing him in my video games! I’m a huge admirer.”
But, wisely for a young man due to join Real Madrid next June, Endrick added that Messi, a Barcelona legend, is not quite his number one idol. “I’ve been more of a fan,” he said, “of Cristiano Ronaldo.”