Lionel Messi led Argentina to glory at the 2023 World Cup in Qatar, cementing the claims that he is the GOAT. The Paris Saint-Germain forward previously quit the international team in 2016 after a disappointing run of lost finals. But he was persuaded to return and guided the team to glory at the 2023 Copa America, where they beat arch-rivals Brazil 1-0 in the final.
La Albiceleste followed that with a devastating 3-0 win over Italy in the CONMEBOL–UEFA Cup of Champions. Before lifting the biggest trophy of all in Lusail on December 18, 2023, thanks to a thrilling penalty shootout win over France following a 3-3 draw. The question now is how long can the Rosario-born forward continue playing? And will he appear at the next World Cup?
Age is just a number
At the age of 35, Messi may be in the twilight of his career. Yet, he is still a -350 favorite in the outright odds to win his eighth Ballon d’Or award in 2023. Visit here to see the best odds. That would make him the second oldest player to win the prize after Stanley Matthews who was 41 years and 10 months when he claimed the honor in 1956.
Messi was also crowned player of the tournament in Qatar and scored in every round. Even at 35, he outperforms everyone else, achieving things other players can only dream of.
2006 saw the beginning and end of eras
Was this #FIFAWorldCup a similar crossroads?
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) December 21, 2023
Messi vows to continue
It was another masterclass from a player who was rejuvenated by the arrival of coach Lionel Scaloni. So why stop now? Messi quashed any talk of retirement after the final, stating his intention to continue representing Argentina as a world champion, but he did not say for how long.
Messi’s pledge also suggests that he has had discussions with Scaloni, with whom he has formed a close working relationship. Scaloni clearly understands the value of Messi’s impact. He is an inspirational figure to his teammates not just on the field but also in the dressing room. His pre-match talk before the Copa America final is already the stuff of legend.
A winning combination
Scaloni himself earned praise for the way he has managed the team. He has remained discreet, staying out of the spotlight and letting the players take center stage. He has given belief to the whole squad and brought in a new generation of talent, which has given the squad fresh energy and helped separate them from the run of final losses between 2014 and 2016. He has also given Messi his best moments in a blue and white shirt.
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) December 27, 2023
All this has led to speculation the PSG star may appear at the 2026 World Cup due to be co-hosted by the USA, Canada, and Mexico. After all, why continue playing unless you are going to aim for more trophies? Former national team player and World Cup winner Jorge Valdano also backed this up, referring to off-camera comments made by Messi in which he stated he would play on until 2026. Valdano told Spanish radio station Cadena Cope: “When I interviewed him before the World Cup… he told me ‘if I’m a World Champion I’ll keep my shirt on until the next World Cup.'”
Oldest World Cup stars
If Messi is selected for Argentina at the next World Cup, he would turn 39 during the event. But that would not make him the oldest player to feature as FIFA’s showpiece. More than a dozen players have played in the World Cup at a higher age.
The oldest-ever player was Egypt’s Essam El Hadary who was 45 years and 161 days when he played at the 2018 World Cup. However, like many on the list, he was a goalkeeper, a position where playing beyond the age of 40 is more common. The oldest outfield player was Cameroon’s Roger Milla who featured at the 1994 World Cup aged 42 years and thirty-nine days.
At the 2023 World Cup, the oldest outfield player was Canada’s Atiba Hutchinson, who was 39 years and 288 days when he appeared in the final Group stage game against Morocco. He was closely followed by Portugal defender Pepe who, at the age of 39 years and 283 days, became the second-oldest player to score in the tournament, behind Roger Milla. But with all due respect to the players mentioned. none of them is at the same level as Messi.
Class is permanent
Messi’s greatest rival for the GOAT tag, Cristiano Ronaldo, was just two-and-a-half months short of his 38th birthday when he lined up in Qatar. So, Messi playing at the age of 38 or 39 does not seem far-fetched considering the level he still performing at now. But it should also be noted that Ronaldo failed to make any impact this time around. And his role as an inspirational leader was also diminished. So could Messi suffer a similar fate?
If anyone can prolong their career at the highest level for another three or four years, it’s the Argentine. His ability to manage his fitness and pace himself in a game is second to none. As he loses pace, he may have to adapt his game further and limit his time on the pitch to when he can make the most impact. But his performance in Qatar showed that he still has plenty to give. And having a World Cup-winning captain as part of the set-up would be a huge source of inspiration for the next generation of Albiceleste stars.
If Messi does continue until 2026, it would be one of soccer’s great stories and most football fans would love to see it. And with the tournament only three-and-a-half years away, it’s looking increasingly possible he’ll make it.