Leo Messi and the faux-asterisk of his World Cup record

Lionel Messi

There were no tears from Leo Messi last night as he watched Philipp Lahm lift the World Cup, and while many an Argentinian eye watered the country’s talisman watched the post-game ceremony with solemn acceptance.

Messi, despite what the statistics say, did not have a good tournament and his four goals masked the fact that he was really a diluted force and a pale imitation of what he is in Catalonia.  He looked exhausted and heavy-legged, a sporadic influence rather than a consistent game-breaker.

Messi was just not Messi.

Minutes after the final whistle sounded in Rio last night, his legacy was being attacked – and, poor tournament or not, that was deeply unfair.  The narrative with the Argentine – for some – seems to be that without a World Cup winners’ medal, his legacy will be tarnished and that without lifting the Jules Rimet trophy he will lack the credentials to walk into the game’s pantheon upon his retirement.

How can anybody credibly claim that to be true?

If Leo Messi never kicks another football, he has already done enough to be considered an equal of the finest players to ever play the game.  A World Cup is nice and it is unquestionably a seminal moment for a nation and a set of players, but what Messi has achieved to date transcends international competition.

Undeniably, he is devalued by those to whom he is frequently compared.  Diego Maradona and Pele are the consensus greatest players of all time and both won the World Cup.  How can it be though, that a competition that occurs just once every four years – and maybe just three times in a player’s career-span – can define a body of work.  Winning it completes a footballing CV and embeds a player into a country’s psyche, but it doesn’t necessarily measure an individual’s impact on the sport itself.

Just as Maradona and Pele were, Messi has been this generation’s icon.  He has spent the last five years of his career sitting above every other player in the world – and he has been so dominant and so successful, that he essentially occupies a category that didn’t previously exist.

In the ten seasons since Messi debuted for Barcelona, he has scored 354 times in 425 appearances, he has won La Liga 6 times, and has won the Champions League on three occasions.  On top of which, he has been the top-scorer in the Champions League in four straight seasons between 2009 and 2012, and was awarded the Balon d’Or in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Maybe once upon a time international football was the biggest stage of all, but that is clearly no longer true.  European club football has grown exponentially over the last twenty years and has become the proving ground that every great player aspires to conquer – and not only has Messi conquered it, in the process he redefined how we assess greatness and he set a benchmark for personal achievement that may never again be matched.

He is the most successful player in the most competitive age of the sport; his lack of a World Cup is, while regrettable, just a technicality upon which his detractors fixate.

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