The superlatives have been exhausted. His place in the history of the game is secured. Lionel Messi, at 27, could retire tomorrow and not lose a night’s sleep about his legacy in the game.
He has rewritten records – many of them – and built a brand of his own. His place in the annals of the game is safe.
Very secure to the point that what he hasn’t done must not be used to put him down. It is why this World Cup is Lionel Messi’s to lose, a struggling Argentina side notwithstanding. In fact Messi is the one player with most to lose in Brazil.
He has the opportunity to take the monkey off his back. The World Cup is the only silverware missing from his extraordinary cabinet. The Argentine maestro is at an age where players are performing at the peak of their powers. Diego Maradona and Zinendine Zidane won it at 26. Andrea Pirlo lifted the Holy Grail at 27. Ronaldo de Lima won it at 26. The best player in the world today is a 27-year-old Argentine who would be the most deserving champion were the trophy awarded purely on individual talent.
In the game of football, four years is a lifetime. In Germany 2006, Messi’s first World Cup, he was still a young, raw kid who was honing his talent. Jose Perkerman, the Argentine coach at the time, resisted the temptation to introduce him against Germany when the Albiceleste could have done with the precocious teen. Perkerman’s decision to withdraw Juan Roman Riquelme, Argentina’s best player then, against Germany was curios. But what was more shocking was the choice of his replacement; Julio Cruz, Argentina’s fifth choice striker, over Messi.
At the last World Cup in South Africa, Messi arrived as a feted man. Coached by his idol Maradona, this was labelled as his tournament. He did everything possible in football but score. Argentina strolled to the quarter-finals but it was apparent in their march to the last eight stage that they had been carried thus far by the momentum of the euphoria around Maradona. Not his tactics. Against the better teams, observers believed they would be exposed.
When Argentina met Germany in Cape Town, it turned into one of the tournament’s one-sided encounters. It had been a mismatch in the dugout. It was a personal disappointment for Messi, seeing his World Cup dream end so brutally at the same stage as the last.
But like in Germany, it could always be argued that he had time on his side to win the World Cup. He had been 23 in South Africa with a whole career ahead of him.
In the last four years, Messi has continued doing what he does best – rewriting records at FC Barcelona. He became Barcelona’s greatest goal scorer in history and is already a three-time Champions League winner. He is the first football player ever to score consecutively against all teams in a professional league.
The Little Flea is also a four-time Fifa Ballon d’Or winner. What Messi has accomplished can’t be exhausted in these lines.
Brazil 2014 was proclaimed as his stage. There has been a homely feeling to Messi in Brazil. Argentina fans are in Brazil in vast numbers. Many have made their way from Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Rosario and Mendoza to cheer the national team. Their new-found adoration for Messi is conspicuous.
Previously, they didn’t see him as their own. He was seen as an outsider in their national team having not played in the Argentina league. That sentiment is gone. Messi’s name now rivals Maradona’s on the jerseys in Brazil. That is the ultimate compliment for any Argentina sportsman. Maradona is a god, 28 years since carrying Argentina to a second world title.
There is a popular chant Argentines are singing in Brazil. It is a hilarious one; one that all Argentina fans have somehow mastered. It is in Spanish but loosely translated as ‘Thank you very much Brazil. Thank you for organizing the tournament. Thank you for putting together this fantastic World Cup. But most importantly, thank you for keeping our trophy. We thank you for keeping it safely for us. And finally remember that Maradona is greater than Pele and Messi is better than Neymar.’
Messi seems to be thriving in his role as the alpa male of the team. He has secured the Budwesier Man of the Match award in every Argentina match at the tournament and is cherishing the load on his small shoulders.
Perhaps he would love his teammates to come to the party too. All Argentine forwards have struggled at the competition bar Angel Di Maria, who Messi fed for the extra time winner over Switzerland in the second round.
The Argentina captain has expressed a willingness to suffer for as long as that is the only way to win his country a third World Cup. When the team lines up against Belgium, coach Marc Wilmots will be wary of Messi.
Whatever his game plans are for Argentina, 80% will be centered round trying to nullify the threat of Alejandro Sabella’s No.10. It is natural that by stopping Messi, you will have succeeded in stopping Argentina.
Messi won’t win the World Cup on his own. No player has. The closest to do it was Maradona but he had Jorge Burruchaga, Jose Luis Brown and Jorge Valdano to score the goals in the final when he was marked so well by Lothar Matthaus (although it was his assist that allowed Burruchaga to score the winner four minutes from time).
Argentina’s worry, and Messi’s too, is the form of the forwards. Sometimes a player’s legend needs the contribution of his supporting cast. Pele wouldn’t have been Pele without the careers of Garrincha, Didi, Rivelino and Tostao.
Messi and his teammates have three World Cup finals ahead of them. The quarter final showdown against Belgium will have to be played like a final. If Sabella’s squad progresses, the semi-final showdown against Holland or Costa Rica will also have the feel of a final.
Messi’ best shot at winning the World Cup is in South America.
Short of it, he may retire as the greatest player never to lift football’s most coveted title.
Race against time
The Argentina captain has expressed a willingness to suffer for as long as that is the only way to win his country a third World Cup. When the team lines up against Belgium tonight, coach Marc Wilmots will be wary of Messi. Whatever his game plans are for Argentina, 80% will be centered round trying to nullify the threat of Alejandro Sabella’s No.10.