Lionel Messi leading Argentina to World Cup glory is the final piece of his greatness jigsaw
Lionel Messi's name will forever be remembered in football history. His greatness is not in doubt but is he really as immortal as many believe? His talent is unquestioned but his impact on the beautiful game is diminished given he has failed to win football’s holy grail, the World Cup.
Being world champion is a dream for all footballers, even those who know it's out of reach. That is not the case for Messi. He can reach that level. He already has and failed.
For him to stand with Diego Maradona and Pele, he must win the World Cup. Johan Cruyff's failure to do so is what keeps him a level below in the annals of greatness. Maradona wrote his name all over Mexico '86, even when he cheated. Pele did what Messi has not been able. He dominated his first World Cup in 1958, scoring a hat-trick against France in the semifinal and a brace against Sweden in the final. He then won two more, in 1962 and 1970.
Other, lesser players have dominated tournaments, too. Paolo Rossi for Italy in 1982, Zinedine Zidane in ’98, the Brazilian Ronaldo in ’94, Andres Iniesta in 2010.
Messi is a genius, a wizard on the ball, but to be fair or unfair, depending on how you view it, he has not delivered when it mattered most for La Albiceleste. At the 2006 World Cup, he was too young, an afterthought. Under the tutelage of Maradona in 2010, the team was built around him, but he was below par, struggling to fit into the confused tactical methodology of his hero.
The last edition in Brazil was the perfect opportunity. He was strong in the group stages and the first knockout round, but faded after. Javier Mascherano's defending and Angel di Maria's buccaneering almost rescued him, only for a 116th-minute goal from Mario Gotze to deny him the trophy he desires most.
Messi is just one player in 11, but the greatest take on more responsibility. They lead; others follow. Argentina boasts top-quality players who can stand their ground anywhere in the world. Di Maria may be in Russia. Javier Mascherano surely will, along with Sergio Aguero. Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mauro Icardi are questionable. Argentina is so steeped in talent Jorge Sampaoli can leave world-class players behind and still contend.
Argentina lost their last friendly match to Spain, 6-1, at the Wanda Metropolitano. Messi was held out for the second time in the two-match window. He was nursing a hamstring injury. The stakes were higher for Pele in 1966, but he played through injury for Brazil when there were no substitutes permitted. It makes sense for the AFA to save its talisman for the crucial moments. On the other hand, the other players in the Brazilian squad knew their leader would always be there for them. That inspires. When Messi takes a day off, all it inspires is doubt.
Worse, he left the executive box in the 79th minute, having seen enough of yet another lacklustre display. The question to be asked is why he wasn't on the bench? His greatest rival in this generation, Cristiano Ronaldo, stood at Fernando Santos' shoulder in the technical area when he could no longer play in Portugal's Euro 16 final against France. Hobbling back and forth, he willed his country to victory. He now has an international trophy. Messi does not.
Maradona is revered as a god on the streets of Buenos Aires and Rosario because he dragged a team of mediocre players to World Cup glory in 1986. La Liga's weekend fixtures saw Barcelona struggle against Sevilla with Messi again on the bench. Barca were two goals down until Messi came in as a replacement for Ousmane Dembele. His presence rallied the Blaugrana. They were able to secure two late goals with the legend himself finding the net with the second hand closing on 90 minutes.
So, Messi can lead. He will sacrifice himself to his club for a meaningless match that only preserves an unbeaten run. The players in the conversation for greatest of all time went miles beyond that. They led always. That is the point. The ability to lead in the direst circumstances, not when it's convenient, is how we truly measure greatness.