Success in World Cup would solidify Lionel Messi’s greatness

Any soccer player in the world would be thrilled to retire with Lionel Messi’s résumé: Four-time World Player of the Year, six La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, and all-time Barcelona leading scorer with 354 goals in 425 matches.

He is the highest-paid player in the world at $27 million per year; and if that weren’t enough, he earns a staggering $40 million in endorsements.

But Messi is not satisfied. There is one major achievement missing. His legacy is incomplete.

Despite being regarded as one of the top few players — if not the top player — in the world, the 26-year-old Argentina captain has never won a World Cup. He has failed to demonstrate his greatness on the sport’s biggest stage, scoring just one goal for his national team in eight World Cup matches in 2006 and ’10.

The narrative on his career has been that his Superman cape disappears when he pulls Argentina’s sky-blue and white jersey over his head. He insists it will be different at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which begins June 12.

“I have arrived with the national team and I am flipping the switch,” Messi told reporters last week. “Many times it was the opposite: I would go to Barcelona and play well. this time we hope the reverse is true. When I get together on the pitch with my friends [on the national team] it is going to be a different story.”

Argentina plays its Group F opener against Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 15 in Rio de Janeiro, and then faces Iran on June 21 in Belo Horizonte and Nigeria on June 25 in Porto Alegre. On paper, it is a winnable group for Argentina, and expectations are high.

Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 and ’86. The legendary Diego Maradona, in the prime of his career, led the 1986 team to victory with five goals and five assists, cementing his position as one of the all-time greats along with Brazilian megastar Pelé. Messi would like to join the elite club, and many think he will with a strong performance this summer.

“This is Messi’s World Cup,” said veteran Miami-based soccer broadcaster Andres Cantor, who will be reporting from Brazil for Futbol de Primera Radio. “He’s shown he’s the best club player in the world, and this will be the time to justify his No. 1 status by showing what he can do with his national team. He will be under a lot of pressure, but he has a team around him playing like a team now. It’s not Messi-plus-10 anymore.”

Ray Hudson, the former Miami Fusion coach, is now a TV announcer for BeinSport USA. He is known to gush over Messi during Barcelona matches.

“In a lot of people’s minds, he is the greatest of his generation, and arguably of all time,” Hudson said. “But he needs a World Cup to shut up the cynics and to eclipse Diego Maradona in most people’s minds. He is a spectacular footballer, that is undeniable. But can he achieve true immortality? It is a massive obstacle and he is under immense pressure.”

La Albiceleste scored more goals (35) than any other team in South American qualifying, and Messi led the way with 10 goals, followed by Gonzalo Higuain (nine), and Sergio Aguero (five).

He also scored 41 goals for Barca, although the Spanish giant went trophy-less and lost the league title to Atletico Madrid on the final day of the season. Critics say Messi did not have a stellar club season because his team didn’t finish on top. Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella doesn’t see it that way.

“I'm not worried about Messi. Far from it — he’s looked good whenever I’ve seen him,” Sabella told Argentine reporters. “The thing is that when a club like Barcelona, who are used to winning, lose, then people get upset. Barcelona players aren’t used to that sort of stuff.

“But experiences like that make you stronger. Messi is a top professional.”

Hudson agrees.

“Some will say Messi is not at an operatic high note after an injury-ridden season that was moderately successful by his standards, which are up there with the greatest football players of all time,” Hudson said. “But he could explode at the World Cup. He is the big gun, his skill is just staggering, and when he is on, there is no containing him.”

There has been pressure on Messi for as long as he can remember. He was first spotted by Barcelona as a scrawny 11-year-old, and the club agreed to pay for his growth-hormone treatment if he would relocate to Spain. Argentine club River Plate also knew of the phenom but didn’t offer to pay the medical bills, so he moved to Spain with his father. Shortly thereafter, he signed with the Barcelona youth team, and the legend began.

In the summer of 2005, he mesmerized fans — and club scouts — at theYouth World Cup in the Netherlands. He scored six goals to lead Argentina to the championship. Later that fall, he became a regular starter for Barcelona.

He played in his first World Cup in 2006 as an 18-year-old, and scored what remains his only goal in the tournament. But he was not a star on that team, and didn’t even play in the quarterfinal against host Germany.

Four years later in South Africa, under coach Maradona, Messi entered the World Cup as a world superstar. But again, things did not go as he had hoped they would. Messi went scoreless, and Argentina lost a 4-0 shocker to Germany in the final eight in Cape Town.

One explanation for Messi’s struggles with the national team is that he did not spend his teen years in Argentina and did not play club in the Argentine system, so it took him time to adjust.

“I think that was more true at the start of his career, when Barcelona was winning everything and Messi was playing so well there, so the arrival of Messi to Argentina was strange because he wasn’t playing at that level with the national team,” said Mario Kempes, star of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup championship team and now an analyst for ESPN Deportes. “He lived in Argentina only a short time, so it was a huge change for him, a huge adjustment, complicated. He didn’t have same teammates on the national team, had to adapt to their style, which was completely different from how he played in Spain. Now, he is acclimated and everyone accepts him.”

Said Cantor: “I think the biggest reason there was a difference with his play with Barcelona and Argentina is that in Spain he plays with three or four of the best players in the world — [Andres] Iniesta, Xavi [Hernandez], [Cesc] Fabregas, [Sergio] Busquets. They give him great support. In Argentina, it took a little time for the team to play like a team, but they are now. Even though the defense is a bit deficient, from the midfield forward they have great potential, and this is the time Messi can shine.”

It is inevitable that comparisons between Messi and Maradona began the moment Messi became an internationally known player. But for now, Maradona has the edge, partly because he was a member of a winning World Cup team.

“Diego pulled a mediocre Argentine team behind him by the bootlaces,” Hudson said. “He stepped through the fire, won that World Cup and became the immortal of the immortals. Messi will always be in Diego’s shadow until he does something like that.”

Other than the 2008 Olympic gold medal, which was won by Messi and the Argentine Under-23 team, Argentina has not won an international trophy since the 1993 Copa America. Argentina has not made it past the World Cup quarterfinals since 1990.

Will this be the year? Will Messi lead his team to glory and silence the critics?

Cantor thinks so. He predicts Argentina will beat Brazil in the final.

“Messi is very enthused, and there is added incentive because it is in Brazil, and you know what a big rivalry we have with them,” Cantor said. “It’s life or death, and it will be in front of a lot of Argentine fans who are making the trip to Brazil. This is the time.”

Maradona says Messi will be considered an all-time great even without a World Cup.

“Messi doesn’t need to win a World Cup to be the best footballer in the world,” Maradona said in a recent interview with La Nacion, an Argentine newspaper. “To win a World Cup would be amazing for Argentina, for the fans and for Leo. But a World Cup more or less will not take away any of the merit of what he has done to get to where he is.”

Says the man with a World Cup trophy on his résumé.

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