World Cup final: Claudio Caniggia on Lionel Messi's last dance and where he stands against fellow Argentina legend Diego Maradona

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi takes part in a training session ahead of his potential date with destiny.Argentina's forward Lionel Messi takes part in a training session ahead of his potential date with destiny.
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi takes part in a training session ahead of his potential date with destiny.
GOAT. That inelegant, horribly reductive acronym standing for Greatest of All Time. Diego Maradona was 25 when he hauled Argentina over the World Cup finishing line in 1986, Lionel Messi is now 35. He bears the scars of 1000 games.

The player whose remarkable career is owed to the expensive growth hormone treatment Barcelona were prepared to invest in can now almost – almost – touch the pinnacle. His crowning glory is within reach at the Lusail stadium, in Qatar’s second city. There is one more dune to scale.

It’s not the sacred turf of the Maracana. That dream sailed eight years ago. Many wondered if that might be it for Messi in terms of World Cups, after he had failed to put his stamp on a deeply disappointing final that Germany won in extra-time.

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He might only have been 27 but World Cups are precious. It’s about taking your chance.

Fans of Argentina wear Lionel Messi shirts as they gather at Souk Waqif to show support to their team on the day before the final.Fans of Argentina wear Lionel Messi shirts as they gather at Souk Waqif to show support to their team on the day before the final.
Fans of Argentina wear Lionel Messi shirts as they gather at Souk Waqif to show support to their team on the day before the final.

A 4-3 defeat in the last 16 against France, Argentina's opponents in today's World Cup final, underlined this four years later in Russia, a then 19-year-old called Kylian Mbappe scoring twice for the eventual champions.

Fate has decreed that Mbappe and Messi will meet again. It really is the last dance as far as the latter is concerned. Messi has confirmed today’s clash will be his final appearance at a World Cup. Mbappe, meanwhile, will celebrate turning 24 on Tuesday and may do so as a double World Cup champion.

The 2014 final was set in the context of Messi against Maradona as much as Argentina against Germany. The former was still fighting for validation in his home country after so many years spent high on the hog in Barcelona and having conspicuously failed to inspire La Albiceleste.

Recently, however, there has been a very evident sea change in the public's perception of Messi, something underlined by reports this week of fans gathering outside his grandmother's house in Rosario, his hometown, to sing paeans to the homeowner's talented grandson. Sadly, both of Messi's grandmothers have long since passed away. It was an egregious case of mistaken identity. Fans have decided to carry on singing in any case.

A Diego Maradona flag is seen next to a cardboard cutout of Lionel Messi.A Diego Maradona flag is seen next to a cardboard cutout of Lionel Messi.
A Diego Maradona flag is seen next to a cardboard cutout of Lionel Messi.

A Copa America triumph in Brazil of all places last year - Argentina's first major title since 1993 - triggered a major reconnection between a country and its famous son. Messi had come out of retirement and though the stands were empty at the Maracana, where the final was played, his home country’s heart was full.

Messi, then 34, was giving something back. The ultimate gift now lies potentially 90 minutes away.

There has been a new devilment about Messi, which fans are also savouring. His ‘did you spill my pint?’-esque reaction to Wout Weghorst when the Dutch striker walked by him during an interview following Argentina's quarter-final victory over the Netherlands was a particularly enjoyable piece of theatre, likewise his baiting of manager Louis van Gaal. One imagines Maradona, in particular, would have relished all of this.

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In the book Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico '86 World Cup, Maradona, who it's sometimes hard to credit also managed Argentina at a World Cup, noted how "ticked off" Messi would get when teammates did not pass to him in training. "That's his rebellion: convincing his teammates that they have to get the ball to him," he wrote. It's why Maradona said he made him captain at that tournament in South Africa in 2010.

It’s now just over two years since the Argentina legend died. A World Cup does not feel wholly like a World Cup without his often-chaotic presence.

When Argentina last reached this stage there was doubt over Maradona even gaining access to the match because there was a suggestion Fifa had rescinded his accreditation (he was supposedly working in Brazil as a journalist for a Venezuelan broadcaster) due to comments he had made about the world governing body’s ethics. Maradona would have a field day in Qatar.

He is undoubtedly a huge miss but perhaps the next best thing to speaking to Maradona ahead of such a huge occasion for Argentina is speaking to his great friend and former striker partner, Claudio Caniggia, a veteran of three World Cups between 1990 and 2002.

Now 55, the former Dundee and Rangers striker has just returned to his homeland after spending nearly a month in Italy. He will watch tomorrow’s final at the home of his girlfriend Sofia’s father in Tigre, 40 kms north of Buenos Aires. We spoke late on Friday night.

“I will be in the garden with the pool, I will stay there the whole afternoon," he told me. "If we win, I will be in the swimming pool! it is 30C here on Sunday.”

Caniggia is well positioned to gauge the temperature of his compatriots. "It’s going crazy here,” he reported. While sharing the enthusiasm of his countrymen, Caniggia will feel some melancholy. It’s always the same at World Cup final time, even more so when Argentina are involved.

The last-but-one time they were in a final, in 1990, Caniggia should have played. He was the previously unheralded golden boy; what Julian Alvarez is now to Messi, he was the same to Maradona. A booking, for an innocuous handball in the semi-final against Italy, after he scored his side's goal in the 1-1 draw, meant Caniggia had to deal with the ultimate disappointment of sitting out the biggest match of a footballer's career. "You are making me depressed now!" he says when the subject's brought up.

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Aged just 23, he was the second-youngest player in Argentina's squad. But he resolved to process his anguish only after helping his country get over the line; he was slated to take the potentially decisive fifth penalty in the shootout but two failed kicks from Italy meant he was spared.

Paul Gascoigne suffered the same fate of knowing he would miss the final due to a booking in the other semi-final, between England and West Germany, but he could not be trusted with taking a penalty. Gazza's tears are still all we hear about. Caniggia simply got on with the job of safely delivering his country to a final.

His tears are more likely to flow on the subject of Maradona, whose death in November 2020 he heard about while on holiday in Mexico. It still doesn't feel real.

Maradona’s gone, Pele is ailing and Messi is waiting outside the pantheon of legends. Or so it sometimes feels like. Caniggia doesn't believe a World Cup win necessarily puts Messi on another level; he's already at the top. Or, as he puts it, he is already round the table.

"I always think that Pele and Maradona are the greatest but Messi is sitting at the table, along with Johan Cruyff and (Alfredo) Di Stefano, although I did not see Di Stefano play. Cruyff was a great player, I liked him a lot.”

It’s still too early to pull out a seat for Mbappe, though Caniggia is a fan. He perhaps sees something of himself in the gazelle-like qualities of the French superstar – Caniggia, after all, was dubbed the ‘son of the wind’. He envies Mbappe's role in a smoothly-functioning France attacking unit.

"In 1990, I had to play alone up front, by myself," he explained. "Otherwise I could have done more. I would have preferred to play with another guy in front of me, like what happened with (Gabriel) Batistuta in '94.

“But in '90, I was the only player up front … that was not for me, I could not do the best I could have done, because I was playing everywhere. Mbappe does not have this problem … because he has Dembele on the other side and Griezmann who is doing a great job in the middle and Giroud up front. I preferred to play with a striker in front of me so I had more space.”

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There could be no complaint from Caniggia about who he had supporting him. Maradona set him up for a memorable winner against Brazil in the last 16, having reduced three Brazilian defenders to mere onlookers; this goal was evoked by Argentina's third goal – created by a Messi solo run for Alvarez to score - in the semi-final against Croatia on Tuesday.

Messi is inching ever closer to Maradona and, some contend, could eclipse him with a victory in Qatar, if he hasn’t already. That's not how Caniggia views it.

“Nothing would change,” he said. “He is at the table. He has been for many years. Crazy. The most consistent player I have ever seen. So he is on the table, of course. Next to Pele, Maradona, Cruyff…”

Who sits at the head of the table? “I always say Diego,” replied Caniggia. “People say, ‘that’s just because he’s your friend’. Well, it does not matter now, I don’t have to hide anything. For me he was the best-ever. But at the same time, I say Messi is sitting on the table next to Diego, next to Pele …”

“We have all enjoyed this guy for many years. It is crazy. He deserves to win the World Cup. He deserves it. He has suffered a lot. He is a rich guy, so it doesn’t matter in those terms, but he has been waiting every four years, five World Cups …

“The guy deserves to win,” he added. "He has made so many people happy, just like Diego did.”