The lonely figure of Lionel, and his messy critics

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Messi’s feats in club football alone are enough to establish his standing in the beautiful game’s pantheon as one of the greatest players ever to grace the game, if not the greatest.

“Even though Messi is surrounded by much better individual talent compared to Maradona’s 1986 team, Messi’s team falls short on team ethic.” | Reuters

As the world’s media hailed the display of French youngster Kylian Mbappe, who displayed his dizzying talent as he scythed through the Argentinian defence multiple times during their Round of 16 encounter, on the losing side was Lionel Messi. The Barcelona and La Albiceleste superstar had cut a forlorn figure on the pitch for a significant time in the tournament, and with this blazing display by the youthful French side, out went one more chance for him to leave an lasting imprint with his national team. Was this Messi’s last chance win a major tournament in Argentina colours?

 

 

 

It isn’t hard to escape this feeling. After all, he’s 31 years old, and this was probably his very last World Cup. It is worth remembering that two years ago, after losing the 2016 Copa America final to Chile on penalties, Messi announced that he was retiring from international football. That game must have been especially painful to “La Pulga Atómica”, as Messi had missed his penalty in the shootout. Speaking after that game, he would say:

“In the dressing room I thought that this is the end for me with the national team, it’s not for me. That’s the way I feel right now, it’s a huge sadness once again and I missed the penalty that was so important…. I tried so hard to be [a] champion with Argentina. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The choice for me is over, it is a decision. I tried many times [to be a champion] but did not.”

Of course, Messi would renege his decision a couple of months later, and drag Argentina to the World Cup 2018 tournament. The only major international honour that Messi has won with his country is the lightweight Gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. At the international tournaments, his tale has always been full of disappointments. To add to all this, Cristiano Ronaldo won the 2016 Euro with Portugal. Three near-misses in three heartbreaking finals filled with what-if moments — the 2014 World Cup, and the 2015 & 2016 Copa Americas — have got to have hurt Messi.

The then coach of Chile, Juan Antonio Pizzi, who is from Argentina, said:

“Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they’ll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a football player to do what Messi has done…. My generation can’t compare him to [Diego] Maradona — that’s for my generation, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer. But I think the best player ever played today here in the United States.”

That comparison again. Maradona, the other Argentine diminutive maestro with the divine left foot. Maradona, the man who won the World Cup for Argentina and brought glory to the nation on the global stage. The question still remains — does Lionel Messi really need a major tournament with Argentina to be labelled as an all-time great?

Sample some of Lionel Messi’s statistics:

552 goals

in

637 appearances

and a

gazillion assists...

... for Barcelona by the end of the 2017-18 club football season.

 

Needless to say, this is head and shoulders above everyone else in the last few footballing generations, with the exception of his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi exemplifies excellence, consistency and longevity rolled into one spectacular individual. In contrast, his illustrious Argentine predecessor Maradona was at his peak for about 5-6 years.

Throughout the history of the game, some other players who boasted such Messi-esque goal returns over such a long period in similar leagues are Gerd Muller, Eusebio, Pele and Ferenc Puskas; this list alone is enough to put his feats into perspective. Then there is a raft of individual and team competitive honours that Messi has won — the multiple Spanish and Champions leagues, the sextuple, the European golden shoe and the FIFA Ballon d’Or/World player of the year awards (more on this shortly), among others.

It must be also remembered that football is a team sport. Of course, on a particular day a spectacular one-man show can overcome a superior team, but in order to experience consistent success, a player needs to be part of a good team. A good showing in the group stages can be completely undone by a cagey match against a plucky underdog, throwing out the best-laid plans of a pre-tournament favourite.

 

What if Messi were to hail from a nation such as Iran or Japan, with possibly no hope of winning the game’s ultimate national competition? Would his trenchant critics drop the matter altogether in that case?

 

Even though Messi is surrounded by much better individual talent (at least the forwards) compared to Maradona’s 1986 team, Messi’s team falls short on team ethic. It also means that the gulf between Messi and his teammates isn’t as pronounced as the one that existed between Maradona and his teammates, making Maradona the de facto leader of his team. Given this, it is hard not to visualise the modern Argentine team as multiple coalition governments in India have been in the past — each alliance partner eager to throw its weight around and call the shots. On the other hand, teams such as Portugal and Uruguay have usually functioned as a better unit, with their team members firmly behind a ringmaster. Also, an individual player hasn’t dominated for a long time throughout the World Cup / Euro. The last player to do that was probably the Brazilian Ronaldo; even then, he had Rivaldo and Ronaldinho for company.

In modern day football, the World Cup is no longer the flagbearer of the game. For instance, back in 1954, the Hungarian team bewitched England at Wembley, winning 6-3. Inspired by the Hungarian team in the 1954 World cup, Manchester City manager Les McDowall modified the Hungarian team’s tactics. He came up with the “Revie Plan” and duly won the 1956 FA Cup. Back then, the World Cup was where new ideas were born, evolved and grew. Coaches had to travel and watch “hip” international teams to be in the know. The World Cup was a stage where legends were made.

Not anymore.

 

 

Today, the European league football (especially, UEFA Champions League) is where the action is. The best players of the world aspire to ply their trade in this competition. Tactical trends from the tournament find their way to international competition, and not the other way around. In fact, the club game has moved so far ahead that only a handful of international teams and games can hold a candle to some of the top clubs’ ability to stockpile talent. And, the best players are paid often paid top dollar for representing these top clubs.

This has reflected in the award shortlists too. Never mind the shootout between Messi and Ronaldo for the ultimate individual prize; all the more, the top 50 is dominated by players who have done well in club football, even during even-numbered years which have an international tournament. This old bogey argument regarding a player’s legendary status — that an eminent player did not win a World Cup — is not peddled today by the adjudicators of football’s top individual award. In fact, since 2008, winning a Euro or World Cup did not sway the jury to change the recipient of the top prize (Ronaldo’s 2016 trophy would have nonetheless been awarded to him even if France had won the Euro).

Finally, would the lack of an ODI World Cup cast a shadow on the scintillating cricketing exploits of Brian Lara or AB de Villiers? Then why are football players held so accountable when their degree of influence on their team is probably far lesser than that of an influential cricket player on his/her team? Also, what if Messi were to hail from a nation such as Iran or Japan, with possibly no hope of winning the game’s ultimate national competition? Would his trenchant critics drop the matter altogether in that case?

Luckily, football isn’t a sport which depends only on international scene. The absence of high-class international competition for Northern Ireland didn’t take the shine off Manchester United winger George Best’s performances. Similarly, players such as Alfredo Di Stefano, Michel Platini, Johan Cryuff, Paolo Maldini and many others didn’t have to win an international tournament in order to be considered as the game’s leading lights. Therefore, Messi’s feats in club football alone are enough to establish his standing in the beautiful game’s pantheon as one of the greatest players ever to grace the game, if not the greatest.

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