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How Lionel Messi – even in the Qatari desert – still walks on water as the Extra Special One

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring against Mexico during the World Cup Group C match at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar© PA


His imagination remains a palace of abundance, after all the years still as fruitful as The Pampas, those vast and lush grasslands that act as food-basket for his homeland.

Lionel Messi’s supreme gift – as he illustrated yet again in one bountiful and transformative weekend cameo against Mexico, his goal resurrecting all the teeming World Cup possibility that has engulfed Argentina in recent weeks – is an unrivalled ability to awaken his audience’s inner child.

The impish picador persuades the grizzled and cynical to worship again at the altar of make-believe.

He is a hero to those of us who really should be too old and world-weary to submit to the notion of heroes. He allows you to feel again about sport the way you did as a ten-year-old.

His presence re-imagines Argentina as the Planet's Team.

Even in the Qatari desert, the Extra Special One walks on water.

When Messi steps into any football church, a tiny, unshaven, heavily tattooed deity, the holy place is instantly reimagined as an agnostic-free zone.

Everyone in the congregation is a believer, devout, adoring, yearning to witness one more miraculous flourish – a sign - from an eternal sporting demigod, a postcard from a Higher Power.

He is this tainted, grotesque World Cup’s great white hope.

Everywhere in Qatar, replica Argentine Number Ten shirts abound, tens of thousands of iPhones trace Messi's every step, many appearing close to rapture when they step into his orbit.

The global desire for Messi to crown a career for the ages with World Cup glory will again find fervent expression at Stadium 974 on Wednesday as the South Americans face Poland.

Argentina have largely struggled to retrace the steps that saw them climb to the Copa America uplands last year, a catastrophic opening loss to Saudi Arabia paling the features of their superstar leader.

Again, in the first-half against Mexico, we saw something substantially less than peak-Messi.

A football visionary who long ago announced himself as an architect of the preposterous struggled to advance beyond the bland foothills of creativity.

At times it looked quite sad, an old rock god embarking on one stadium tour too many, no longer able to hold the audience spellbound, the magic lost to time.

And then with one leather-trousered swivel of the hips, one guitar solo, one familiar chorus line, he turned back the clock, reeled in the years.

He reminded us that, even if he is closer to his 40th birthday than his 30th, he is still, forever Messi.

The goal against Poland had the feel of an authentication, the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner inviting any doubting Thomases to examine his wounds. Yes, it really is Him.

Messi was back amongst us. The custodian of a beautifully accomplished back catalogue, an exquisite archive that allows him to effortlessly make the deepest connection with his audience.

The delicacy of his kill-shots, a capacity to boggle minds, has, over 15 years of wonder, upgraded our days, fed a mass hunger to chew on something unforgettable.

Messi has made a life of forwarding highlight reels from a land of fantasy, an acreage where impossible truly is nothing.

With one alchemist's flourish, a trademark lasered strike that took down Mexico, he carried Argentina - and his vast five-continent fan club - out of emotional recession.

This is what Messi does, as luminously as any athlete who has ever lived.

The stripe-shirted Merlin inhabits a territory of few footprints: A near-empty pasture where, across the decades, only a tiny few, among them Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, the peerless Ali, and Leo’s wild, scintillating compatriot, Diego, have hiked.

He is essence of Picasso, Mozart and Archimedes distilled into one compact, inventive, boundary-pushing, sensory stimulant.

In an ordinary tournament cycle, one devoid of this World Cup's putrid stench, the planet’s novenas would will him to the only podium he has yet to conquer.

But now, more than ever, Qatar's soiled gathering leans on the possibilities he offers.

Messi is no stainless angel. He is a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia, a well-documented world leader in intolerance; as a PSG galactico he is essentially an employee of Qatar, a nation with medieval attitudes to minorities.

Yet he still feels like a force for good, a wellspring of artistry and grace slaking the thirst of millions to witness something they will carry with them to the grave.

A Hans Christian Andersen for grown-ups, persuading the world-weary to submit to the enchanting notion of fairy tales.

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