Lionel Messi doesn’t need to win the World Cup to validate his status as the greatest soccer player of all time.
Yeah, yeah, that essentially reads as, “Please don’t care about a big part of the World Cup.” For a national soccer media outlet, that’s counterintuitive.
Then again, so is what Messi does on the field.
How is his touch so majestic? His sense of space so acute? His dribble so tethered? His movement so precognitive? His finishing so precise?
Plenty of writers (this one included) have tried to summon or invent all manner of adjectives to describe Messi’s greatness. And they all fall short compared to the eyes of those who have watched him carve up the most competitive era the sport has ever seen.
Soccer is the most abstract game there is. More than any other, it’s a blank canvas on which to give your interpretation of how things should play out. There isn’t the regimented design of American football, or the confined workspace of basketball, or the zero-sumness of baseball. There is only you, and what you can offer the game in a split-second of imagination.
If that’s not enough for the anti-Messi brigade, well, that’s where soccer debates crumble. The lines of technique and skill and athleticism and greatness are blurred. To wit: There’s no question Messi is a better dribbler than 99 percent of the players who have ever lived. But better than Diego Maradona? You’d at least get some pushback there.
In fact, it’s Maradona against whom Messi is most often compared. And for one giant golden reason.
Maradona is a hero in Argentina not because his career even compares to Messi, but because he won his country the World Cup. It’s a weird dynamic between the rest of the world and Europe, where every major club is based. Outside the continent? There are top-flight competitions and bitter rivalries, to be sure, but none with the kind of world-class talent plying their trade in Europe.
So whereas, say, English fans won’t watch their team win the World Cup this summer, at least they can return to their Manchester Uniteds or Cities or Liverpools or Chelseas and compete for trophies with the world’s attention on them. If an Argentinian team won the Copa Libertadores, would it merit more than a televised blurb on the other continents?
That’s the power of the World Cup, and that’s the weight unfairly thrust upon Messi. It doesn’t matter how much success he has with Barcelona — and for those keeping score, that’s three Champions League titles as the star, another as a member of the final squad, nine La Liga crowns, a joint-record five Ballon d’Or awards as world player of the year, and so many other honors and records it’d require a separate column — it only matters if he replicates that with Argentina.
In some warped corner of fandom and antiquity, the visibility and the infrequency of the World Cup defines greatness. The ability to pick up and put down and pick up and put down a shapeshifting supporting cast for years, and then carry it to glory when the stage is both the biggest and the most perilous, isn’t seen for the referendum on randomness it actually is. Instead, winning the World Cup is seen as the ultimate way to determine the greatest players ever.
If that’s the case, does it also argue against the likes of Johan Cruyff? Paolo Maldini? Peter Schmeichel? Zico? Alfredo Di Stefano? Dennis Bergkamp?
Or, you know, Cristiano Ronaldo?
That’s another layer of the rub. Ronaldo led (term used loosely) Portugal to the 2016 European Championship. Never mind he had to be subbed off midway through the first half with an injury. He has a major international title on his résumé. Messi, to date, does not.
And he’s had chances. He dragged Argentina to the World Cup final in 2014, then to the Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016. He lost those matches, in order, in the 113th minute, on penalties, and on penalties once again. Argentina’s major international trophy drought now stands at a quarter-century, and the magnifying glass only redirects hotter beams of light on Messi every time the country comes up short.
But perhaps that’s the single best argument for him being the greatest ever. We simply don’t judge any other player like we do Messi. We don’t judge Ronaldo like that, probably because Portugal’s history pales in comparison to Argentina. We don’t judge the players of France and England and even Germany like that, we judge the teams as a whole.
Messi is so good, he is Argentina. He is the team. Think not in terms of his praises, but his damnations. We’re disappointed he doesn’t win the World Cup by himself. We’re crestfallen when he doesn’t score in a given match. We’re shocked when he doesn’t convert even difficult chances. Does that say more about him, or about the regard we actually have for him?
Let’s stack him up against other popular “greatest ever” candidates. Maradona’s legacy is largely the 1986 World Cup, which included a group stage in which he scored once (and Argentina barely escaped), a charmingly illegal goal against England, a brace in the semifinals against Belgium, and a triumph in the final where he didn’t score. Yes, he was heavily marked in that match, but would we give the same pass to Messi?
Pele comparisons are similarly unfavorable. If you want to demean Messi’s domestic success by citing Barcelona’s overall talent, look at the damn team sheet of the squads Pele headlined at the World Cups he won. And success in Europe is a wash, considering Pele never competed on that side of the pond in his career.
So that’s where we find ourselves with Messi. The argument for his impossibly mesmerizing talent is also nebulous in nature. But a closer scrutiny of his accomplishments, and the process by which he achieved them, is almost irrefutable. It doesn’t cling to perception, it clings to valid inference.
Messi is already the greatest player of all time. A World Cup title would only seal it. Go get that trophy, Jesus in Adidas.
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• 2018 World Cup preview hub
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• FC Yahoo’s latest series: Welcome to The Mixer