Unburdened Lionel Messi looks to lift final weight

LUSAIL, Qatar – Lionel Messi smiled, a big beaming smile, all teeth and cheeks and joy and a complete lack of complications.

When his younger comrades fell to the ground or looked up to the sky, or screamed with delight or found the emotion too great to hold back tears, there was none of this from the man they all revere.

As Argentina booked their spot in what will be Messi’s second World Cup final (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) and their last chance to lift the world’s biggest prize football, all he felt was happiness. No filter, no verification and finally no upload.

The joy of Lionel Messi

The joy of Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi talks about reaching the World Cup final for the second time in his career.

It wasn’t the smile of a man worried about whether Sunday’s final will bring another chilling dose of pain on football’s biggest stage, like the one he felt in 2014.

It was not the look of a player who still feels hemmed in by the expectations of his homeland that he cannot perform effectively when on international duty.

It was a portrait, honestly, of someone who knows something that no one else does, or at least thinks he does. Given Messi’s level of intelligence and intuition on the pitch, would it be a shock if he somehow sensed this coming, this spectacular run that followed the saddest start imaginable?

What exactly did he know, to exude such peaceful satisfaction in the Lusail Stadium, after Croatia had been dispatched and a place in the finals was etched on the calendar?

Did he know that losing to Saudi Arabia in their first tournament would be just the jolt needed for Argentina to play collectively instead of technical excellence but debilitating selfishness? Does he know there’s enough cohesive talent in this group to beat anyone, and only come the winner of Wednesday’s France-Morocco semifinal (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)?

Does he know he has something special left, an X-factor moment waiting to happen from the best X-factor player?

It seems so, doesn’t it?

The leadership of Lionel Messi

The leadership of Lionel Messi

The “World Cup Today” crew discusses Lionel Messi’s leadership and how his talent helped Argentina advance to the World Cup final.

Messi isn’t buzzing around the pitch in this World Cup, he’s picking his spots, but wow, how he capitalizes when the time is right. He walks around waiting for the ball, but then springs to life to crash a penalty or distract a defender or make a brilliant run from the halfway line.

It’s a smart, energy-saving and highly effective approach. It only works because there is a young man in Julián Álvarez willing to make so much compensatory pushback that it doesn’t matter.

And it also essentially cripples the idea of ​​implementing a tactic to put a body on Messi and follow him wherever he goes. Anyone assigned to such a stratagem could be lulled to sleep by the inactivity between its sudden and devastating outbursts.

Emotionally, psychologically, this is a different side of Messi. When Argentina reached the final in 2014, there was tension around them, both in the build-up and on the night itself.

Lionel Messi and Argentina celebrate

Lionel Messi and Argentina celebrate

Lionel Messi did it all for Argentina in the semi-finals.

In the here and now, he looks like a guy who has accepted the fact that he may never win a World Cup and is at peace, knowing that his career would still have been one of the best without it.

This slight change in mindset has eased the pressure. Messi is a fierce competitor and the process of striving to win is like oxygen to his warrior soul. No longer, however, there is the weight of national expectation. He learned to handle all this, and the Argentine public has also learned to be a little more reasonable with his demands.

It may feel different in the coming days, but for now it’s impossible to remember Messi’s smile and not feel there’s something inevitable about him eventually ending up with football’s most prestigious trophy.

Maybe this is just a sucker for a fairy tale or a testament to the power of superstar charisma. Or the willingness to see the odds turned upside down, perhaps, because if France advance from the other side, Argentina will be a confirmed underdog with sports betting.

However, it is difficult to see them that way. Not after beating the 2014 runner-up so comfortably.

And not when the best player in the world smiles that smile.

It can be just a smile and nothing more. But it feels like there’s more to it somehow, something far-reaching. He can almost see the future, and he likes what he sees.

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX i subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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