Lionel Messi’s 2014 World Cup has been framed as a question for validation. Messi’s ever-important “legacy” depends on what happens with Argentina in Brazil, perhaps his last World Cup shot in his prime. Failure would, purportedly, leave a chasm separating him from all-time greats such as Pelé and Diego Maradona. That narrative, in 2014, is elementary and absurd.
The World Cup remains soccer’s greatest stage. The tournament captivates millions. Organic enthusiasm reigns amidst corruption. It’s what people romanticize the Olympics to be. But, unlike say 1970, it’s no longer soccer’s toughest standard of competition. The game’s greatest don’t meet once every four years. They meet week-in, week-out in Europe’s top leagues and the Champions League.
The European club game is where the world’s best soccer resides. Messi has been, almost without dispute, the best player at that level.
He turned 27 yesterday. Here are some highlights from his career, which is ongoing.
* Six Spanish Primera Liga titles
* Three Champions League titles
* Four-straight Ballon d’Or awards (no one else has more than three)
* Three-time European top goal-scorer
* Four-time Champions League top goal-scorer
* Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer
That’s before you get into some of his more ridiculous feats. He scored 91 goals in the calendar year of 2012 for Barcelona and Argentina, a record. He scored in 21-straight league matches from 2012-13. That means he ran through the entire Spanish League consecutively, scoring at least one goal against each team.
Let’s throw in some of his more staggering feats. He scored 91 goals for club and country in the calendar year of 2012. Part of that was scoring in 21-straight league matches from 2012-13. He ran through the entire Spanish league consecutively, scoring at least a goal against every team.
Countable stats you want? He has amassed 271 goals and 92 assists in 240 starts over the past six seasons in the Primera Liga and the Champions League. One could argue the Spanish league is not as deep as the Premier League top to bottom. One could also argue the Spanish league has produced five European Cup winners since 2004 that were not Barcelona, including both Champions League finalists this past season.
Messi plays the toughest competition in the world with Barcelona. Few have even approached his level of dominance. No one has maintained it for as long. His Argentina record has been spottier. That is due to a broader Argentina problem beyond his control.
Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to the World Cup Final in 1990. The team won the Copa America in 1991 and 1993. Since then, their record in tournaments has been abysmal. Argentina has not gone farther than the quarterfinals at the World Cup. The only country they have beaten (aside from penalties) in a knockout round is Mexico. Argentina has crashed out in the quarterfinals of four out of their last six Copa Americas and failed to win.
Messi’s Argentina teams present a particular conundrum. Unlike the more balanced 2006 squad, the Argentines are loaded up front and nowhere else. It’s hard to find a more devastating attacking quartet than Messi, Di Maria, Higuain and Aguero. Coaches before Alejandra Sabella were shoehorning Carlos Tevez in there as well. The temptation is to get those guys on the field. The inevitable result, whether it has been a competent coach or Maradona, is a de facto 4-2-4. Forwards not tracking back leaves a shaky defense unprotected. They don’t move the ball into the attacking phase efficiently.
At Barcelona, Messi is finishing chances. With Argentina, Messi is drifting back into midfield to find the ball and having to create them. That’s why he looks like two different players.
Messi has played better for Argentina under Sabella, where he has been the focal point. He has scored 20 goals in his last 22 international matches. That form has carried into the World Cup. He iced the team’s first win against Bosnia and Herzegovina. He bailed them out in their second match against Iran. Clearly, he can perform at a World Cup. This Argentina team looks like it will need him to, in every match.
The World Cup is where “legends” are made. Those who win, such as Pelé, Beckenbauer, Maradona and Zidane, carry an extra mystique. So do those who come close, such as Cruyff or Eusebio. But it also warps perception. The World Cup is also a small, fickle sample size. It can be the product of structure and circumstance as much as “greatness.” Some of the game’s best have been born in the wrong country or at the wrong time. Some have had the ball bounce the wrong way.
“Greatness” in soccer and other sports is the ability to achieve excellence and to sustain it over time. In that, Messi is almost unparalleled, and he still has a few more years to perform in his prime.