On his day, which is most days he is on the pitch, Lionel Messi is otherworldly. He plays the most popular game in the world, the beautiful game, as we assume a God would, slaloming through and around defenders as if they were blow up dolls, keeping the ball so close to his feet it appears they are magnetically connected, sending sublime passes to the feet of his teammates as if the conductor of a symphony and scoring goals from unimaginable angles with the ease of a magician. He has won every award a club player could win, already has three Champions League crowns to his name (before he reaches 29), scores goals at a rate that only Cristiano Ronaldo can approach and is generally considered the greatest player of his era.
And yet a question continues to persist. Can he take the title of greatest ever if he never wins the World Cup for his country? Diego Maradona did it, with a much weaker Argentina team. Pele did three times. And even as he is remembered for possibly costing France a second, Zidane did it as well. There are many great players who haven’t accomplished that feat, which relies on some luck and the quality of your teammates, but the greatest of all time title seems to demand that achievement, if for no other reason than it solidifies the importance of international football and the most watched event in sports. Messi has had his chances, particularly last summer in Brazil, but his continued failure to rise to the occasion I believe puts him one rung below the his two most obvious “greatest ever” rivals, Maradona and Pele.
Yesterday Messi lined up with a chance to at least make some amends for the World Cup final loss last summer, doing something he and his golden generation of Argentines have not yet accomplished – win the Copa America. He even recently claimed he would give up all he has won with Barcelona for this prize, and even as sanity tells us this proclamation was made mostly for the benefit of his compatriots, it is clear he knows that his legacy as the greatest ever is at stake. And while he played a good game and set up the final flurry that arguably should have been finished by Higuian to win the Copa at the end of regulation time, his overall play was several rungs below his best yet again. Sure his teammates didn’t help by squandering half chances throughout and collapsing in the penalty shootout (he was the only one to actually make his penalty shot), but Messi didn’t even take a shot on goal, lost the ball on several occasions throughout the game, was often standing or jogging around as everyone else on the pitch played as if their lives depended on the outcome and only had three memorable passes the entire afternoon.
He did help Argentina win the U-20 World Cup in 2005, the Olympic Gold in 2008 and to three major finals – the Copa America in 2007 and this year and the World Cup last year, but the loss in all three of those finals does raise a series of troubling questions. Does he falter in the biggest games? Does he rise to the occasion the way the best in any sport do? Has his silverware case at Barcelona been the result of being surrounded by among the best club teams ever assembled in the long history of the sport? Could we even say that Messi tends to diminish when the spotlight is shined brightest upon him?
That last question seems unfair. To look at just his major accomplishments, we see a nonpareil career. On top of the Olympic and Junior World Cup titles, he has won the Ballon d’Or four times, became Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer at the tender age of 24, reached 400 goals for club and country at the age of 27, became the all-time leading scorer in La Liga history last year, is the all-time leading scorer in the Champions League, has won that event four times already along with seven La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys, six Supercopas de España, two Supercopas and two FIFA Club World Cups. He is the only player in history to lead the Champions League, considered the premier club tournament in the world, for four consecutive years and also has the most hat tricks (5) scored in the competition. He set the European record for the most goals scored in a season with an astronomical 73, set the La Liga record for 50 in a season and became the second player ever to score in six competitions within one season. In 2013, he scored in his 19th straight game, to become the first player in the history of Europe to score against every other team in a top-flight table consecutively. And he has the most goals and most hat tricks in one of the most famous and important matches in the entire world, the El Classico that matches his Barcelona against Real Madrid.
When one looks at the record or watches Messi play, it is hard not to argue that he is the greatest player in history. And one could further argue that but for the constant choking by his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain, he might already have that coveted World Cup, together with the Copa America. But shouldn’t the greatest player of all times raise the level of his play at the key moment to take a close game by the horns and win it for his team? Should he at least be attempting to put the ball past the keeper? Should the elevation of his game on the grandest stage serve as an inspiration to those around him to elevate their level as well? Too often, Messi has performed well in international competitions only to falter at the last step. And, for those who like to look at the statistics, he has now gone over 1,000 minutes without scoring a goal in international competition, seemingly impossible when he look at the rate that he scores throughout his career. For Barcelona, he has 286 goals in 315 appearances (a rate of a goal every 1.1 games). For Argentina, he has scored a still impressive 46 goals in 103 appearances (a rate of a goal every 2.24 games).
Chile put up a valiant effort throughout the game and, though underdogs, had the advantage of almost 90 percent of the crowd being home supporters, the talents of Alexis Sanchez, Vidal and Gary Medal to match up against the star-studded Argentinian team, and the luck of having Angel di Maria pull up lame after only 30 minutes. Many will argue they deserved to win the game. But the less than stellar performance from the man many already claim is the “greatest of all times” begs the question yet again of whether he yet deserves that title, or whether he will ever create a consensus around it without reaching glory at the national level.