There is now no way of getting around the fact: Lionel Messi is officially one of football's elder statesmen.
The Barcelona and Argentina wizard turned 34 on Thursday, an age which usually signals the beginning of the end for professionals. The event was accompanied by an outpouring of tributes from across the sporting world, acknowledgement of the towering impact he has had since first bursting onto the scene almost two decades ago.
Those celebrations, though, carry a bittersweet feeling, especially for those of us who have followed his career from the very beginning and, indeed, have grown up with Leo as the shining light of our generation, capable of making the impossible look straightforward and commonplace. We know that one day it will happen but cannot yet begin to countenance the notion of watching football without the diminutive genius as its star attraction.
Happily, if the Copa América is any indication that day is still some way off. Perhaps Messi is not quite as explosive as he was at his scintillating peak. Perhaps in 2021 he sometimes has to settle for dancing around two or three defenders rather than five or six. But he remains the best player Argentina, or any team for that matter, is capable of fielding, and is the man the entire Albiceleste team looks toward when they need a flash of inspiration or a way past a sudden defence. As he showed against Chile with his magical free-kick, moreover, and dozens of moments of magic besides in the three games Argentina have played so far in Brazil, he is more than happy to oblige.
Even when it appears the captain could use a break, as was the case prior to Monday's narrow victory over Paraguay, taking him out of circulation is easier said than done. “The reality is that Messi has been playing every game and it is very difficult not to have him there, even when he's tired he makes the difference,” coach Lionel Scaloni told reporters after that 1-0 win which sealed qualification to the knockout stages. The trainer has made Leo the figurehead of an otherwise much-changed team, and not just for his talent, as he explained prior to the Copa: “He is the player with the most blood in his veins, the one who wants to win the most, who is hurt most by losing.”
Much has been made of one simplistic comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo, the 'other' great of this current generation. While the Juventus star, it is argued, reached such heights through unimaginable levels of hard work and sacrifice, Messi is the natural genius whose abilities came directly from above. That interpretation, though, cannot explain the endurance of Argentina's No. 10 at a time when many mere mortals are considering retirement.
Messi has played the full 90 minutes in all of the 11 matches Scaloni's charges have disputed since completing the suspension he received after the 2019 Copa América, a run in which they are yet to taste defeat. He has not missed a single minute in this current international window, even after racking up just shy of 50 games (in all but three of which he also completed the full 90) in a gruelling season for Barcelona, condensed due to the Covid-19 pandemic into just under eight intense months of competition.
That level of fitness and resistance is not God-given. Messi is one of, if not the greatest of all time because he has coupled his innate gifts with a work ethic the equal of any player on earth, constantly monitoring his diet and fitness regime to stay in top condition. It is for that reason that even at 34 we still see in him the fresh-faced kid who revelled in tearing opposition teams apart time and time again, and why even the most pessimistic expect to see him continue to do so for many years to come.
The past week also saw a different kind of birthday in Argentina. Across the country at 4.09pm on Tuesday fans performed a symbolic celebration to mark the 35th anniversary of Diego Maradona's Goal of the Century, the incredible strike that downed England and set Argentina on the way to 1986 World Cup victory.
If there were one observation to be made of Messi it is that his 1986 moment, for his country at least, is yet to arrive. There have been sparkling performances, certainly, and too many near-misses almost to count, but no single scene which could be pointed to in three decades' time as the pinnacle of his glorious career. Part of that is of course due to saturation coverage of the modern game and the vast extent of Leo's own highlight reel, worthy of its own 24-hour network; but it also points to a player that for all his genius still has a score to settle with the national team.
The good news is that time is still on his side. This Copa and next year's World Cup in Qatar might prove to be Messi's last and he is determined to make his mark, particularly following the explosive exit he made in Brazil in 2019, railing against CONMEBOL and its perceived corruption. All true football fans would love another decade of the great at the height of its powers; in Argentina, we would settle for a taste of the silverware he so richly deserves and which has proved so painfully elusive over the years.