Unburdened Lionel Messi appears to raise remaining weight

LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi smiled, an enormous, beaming grin, all enamel and cheeks and pleasure and an entire lack of complication.

As his youthful teammates fell to the bottom or seemed to the skies, or screamed with delight or discovered the emotion too nice to carry within the tears, there was none of that from the person all of them revere.

As Argentina booked its spot in what might be Messi’s second World Cup remaining (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports activities App) and his final likelihood to raise soccer’s best prize, all he felt was happiness. Unfiltered, unchecked, and — lastly — unburdened.

Lionel Messi’s pleasure

Lionel Messi's joy

Lionel Messi talks about reaching the World Cup remaining for the second time in his profession.

It was not the smile of a person nervous about whether or not Sunday’s remaining will deliver one more chilling dose of ache on the grandest stage in soccer, just like the one he felt in 2014.

It wasn’t the look of a participant who nonetheless feels shackled by the expectations of his homeland a lot that he cannot carry out successfully when on worldwide obligation.

It was a portrait, candidly, of somebody who is aware of one thing nobody else does — or at the very least thinks they do. Given Messi’s degree of nous and instinct on the sphere, would it not be such a shock if he someway sensed this was coming, this spectacular run that adopted essentially the most dismal begin possible?

What did he know precisely, to exude such a peaceable satisfaction at Lusail Stadium, after Croatia was dispatched and a spot within the remaining was etched into the calendar?

Did he know that shedding to Saudi Arabia in its event opener could be simply the jolt wanted to get Argentina taking part in collectively as an alternative of with technical excellence however debilitating selfishness? Does he know there may be sufficient cohesive expertise on this group to beat anybody, with solely the winner of the France-Morocco semifinal Wednesday (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports activities App) to return?

Does he know he has one thing particular left himself, an X-factor second ready to occur from the last word X-factor participant?

It appears prefer it, would not it?

The management of Lionel Messi

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

Messi isn’t buzzing around the field at this World Cup, he’s picking his spots, but, my, how he capitalizes when the time is right. He walks around waiting for the ball, but then bursts into life to crash home a penalty or to distract a defender or to go on a brilliant run from the halfway line.

It is a smart approach, conserving of energy and mightily effective. It only works because there is a youngster in Julian Alvarez willing to do so much compensatory backtracking for it not to matter. 

And it also essentially paralyzes the idea of a tactic being implemented to just put a body on Messi and follow him wherever he goes. Anyone assigned to such a ploy might be lulled to sleep by the inactivity in between his sudden, devastating bursts.

Emotionally, psychologically, this is a different side to Messi. When Argentina reached the final in 2014 there was a tension about him, in both the buildup and on the night itself.

Lionel Messi and Argentina celebrate

Lionel Messi and Argentina celebrate

Lionel Messi did it all for Argentina in the semifinals.

Here and now, he looks like a guy who has come to terms with the fact he might never win a World Cup and is at peace with it, knowing his career will still have been one of the best ever without it.

That slight shift in mindset has relieved the pressure. Messi is an unabashed competitor and the process of striving to win is like oxygen for his warrior soul. No longer though, is there the knee-buckling weight of national expectation. He learned to handle all that, and the Argentinian public has also learned to be a little more reasonable with its demands of him.

Maybe it will feel different in the coming days but for now, it is impossible to remember Messi’s smile and not to feel like there is something inevitable about him finally getting his hands on soccer’s most prestigious trophy.

Maybe that’s just being a sucker for a fairytale, or a testament to the power of superstar charisma. Or a willingness to see the odds overturned, perhaps, for if France advances from the other side of the bracket, Argentina will be a confirmed underdog with the sportsbooks.

Yet it’s hard to see them that way. Not after they beat the 2014 finalist so comfortably. 

And not when the world’s greatest player is smiling that smile.

It could just be a smile and nothing more. But it feels like there is more to it somehow, something far-reaching. Almost that he can view the future — and likes what he sees.

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the each day e-newsletter.

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