Messi requires World Cup triumph to lay ‘greatest player ever’ talk to rest

Messi will look to secure Argentina's first World Cup title since 1986 this summer.

DANIEL MIHAILESCU

There comes a time in every transcendent athlete’s career that the conversation veers from “is he great?” to “is he the greatest?” We have long since ascertained that Barcelona and Argentina forward Lionel Messi is a great. So it follows that we can now ask the second question earnestly.

Even in a relative down year, such as his injury-riddled 2013-14 campaign, Messi’s dominance at the club level has been so all-encompassing as to feel inevitable and absolute. His resumé needs no further padding on that front. By the grace of having been raised into one of the finest teams ever assembled, he has won every club and individual trophy there is to win — several times over.

The only point of contention is the international performances of the mesmerizing little Messi, who will turn 27 during the World Cup. It seems to have been written somewhere at some point that in order to be counted among the greatest of all-time, you must win a World Cup. Pelé did so in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Diego Maradona did in 1986, would have in 1978, had he not been the last man cut from the team, and almost did in 1990. Johan Cruyff didn’t, losing the final in 1974, and so he’s considered a half-notch below the aforementioned two.

Messi, in two tries, hasn’t even come close. As a newbie in 2006, his Argentina folded against Germany in the quarterfinals as he played only some of the time. In 2010, with the team now built around him by Maradona as the erratic and overly emotional manager, the exact same fate befell them — Germany in the quarterfinals. Messi has won the Olympics, an under-23 tournament and the under-20 World Cup, but those don’t seem to register on the greatness matrix.

In this discussion, the World Cup is a handy quantifier, because it has remained fairly constant in its difficulty to win as time has passed. Comparing teams or players from different eras is an inherently fraught exercise. There’s no truly accurate equalizer for the difference of time and space in which a performance was delivered. There are only false equivalencies.

NORTH LONDON DERBIES

It would be foolhardy to deny that the game has sped up by several gears, produced more well-rounded players and acquired more technical polish since Pelé’s heyday. If you took him at his 1960s best and plonked him into today’s game, he’d have a hard time competing. But if you took a kid of his talent and nurtured him with today’s sports science and training methods, the equation changes dramatically. Maradona, for his part, would have benefited from the same, and could perhaps have proved more productive with the latter-day sports psychology at his disposal, to keep his roaring self-destructive streak in check. Which is all to say that any comparison breaks down on context alone.

Take those club-level accolades, for instance. Pelé won the state title 10 times, the Brazilian league six times and the Copa Libertadores twice. That’s not so different from Messi’s six La Liga titles and three UEFA Champions League cups. Maradona won the Argentinian league twice and Italy’s Serie A twice. Continentally, he won the UEFA Cup as well. Now, it would seem that Messi and Pelé are on fairly equal footing here, besting Maradona. But then the latter won his Italian titles with a team that had never won one before. And Pelé did it all in Brazil, which boasted a stronger domestic league then than it does now, but never did measure up to the soccer being played in Europe. Messi, meanwhile, had a far better team surrounding him than the other two.

False equivalencies. And arbitrary measurements. Like the one seeming to imply that to be one of the greatest of all-time, you must first be the best of your own generation. Here’s where Cristiano Ronaldo, the amazingly talented and productive Portuguese — whose goal tallies are up there with Messi’s year after year — seems to be victimized. He isn’t a part of this discourse, because the long shadow cast by the short Messi has obscured his achievements ever so slightly. Though he recently helped Real Madrid capture their tenth UEFA Champions League title in May, he has reached the semifinals and Round of 16 in the last two World Cups, and the finals and semifinals in the European championships. With the World Cup record evening out, he edges Messi’s continentally, since the Argentine hasn’t done as well in the less competitive Copa America.

ULTIMATE PRIZE

And so we come back to the World Cup. The nay-sayers, all those inclined to believe that everything was better before, point to its absence from his trophy shelf to deny Messi his perch. Ditto for Ronaldo. So to convince all those who are as of yet unswayed, Messi will ultimately have no choice but to win the damn thing.

Brazil will present him with his best chance yet this summer. Teams playing on their home continent have historically held an immense advantage in World Cups, especially if that continent is far removed from Europe. In his peers, Messi has a strong supporting cast. Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Sergio Aguero are as strong a corps of forwards as anybody’s — even in the absence of the ostracized Carlos Tevez. Behind them, an able line of playmakers will open up the supply routes. And the defense is sufficiently serviceable to backstop everything.

But if he and his team fall short again, questions will continue to linger about whether Messi is truly one of the greatest ever for at least another four years – whether fair or not.