In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup Finals, there have been two topics on everyone’s lips. Needless to say, the first of these is hailing the German triumph over Argentina in what proved to be a tense and close match-up pitting the tournament’s best two sides. That topic has covered most of the front pages of newspapers and online media alike, and rightly so. However, there has been a second topic, and one that has taken a life of its own. This one has focused on undermining Lionel Messi’s World Cup and general standing in the history of the world’s most popular sport.
To add context to the subject, it is fair to suggest that a large number of experts and non-experts alike (social media has given a voice to the voiceless) had always claimed that to be considered the greatest footballer ever, Messi would have to shine at the World Cup. Most of these people fall into the generation that grew up watching another Argentine legend, Diego Maradona, rather than one which grew up idolizing Pele. Legend has it that Maradona single-handedly, excuse the pun, led the Argentine’s to the trophy in 1986 without the help of a decent set of players around him which included Pumpido, Batista, Burruchaga, Valdano and Ruggeri among others.
Whilst Messi has been the single most dominant player in world football during the last 5 or 6 years, his success both individually and as part of a team has almost entirely happened with his club, Barcelona. The question mark would always hover over the debate as long as Messi did not win the World Cup. Needless to say, Pele largely doesn’t figure in this debate because either “he didn’t play in European football” or he wasn’t alone in leading Brazil to those World Cup titles. Selective criteria does wonders to carve out the results that one is looking for.
So the stage was set for Messi to lead Argentina to the World Cup title in Brazil and cement his position as the undisputed greatest. In the early stages, he did not disappoint. A crucial goal against Bosnia in a tense 2-1 victory, a 90th minute winner against a resilient Iran and a brace against Nigeria in his side’s final group stage game gave Messi 4 goals and the key man behind Argentina’s progress at that stage. In the second round, Messi laid off the assist for Angel Di Maria to score against Switzerland in the last minutes before a potential penalty shoot-out. Against Belgium in the Quarter Finals, Messi produced a tactically astute performance which kept the Belgian defence on their heels throughout the match. However, there was no goal or assist. By the end of the semi-final, the criteria for immortality had been shifted by those posing them. Instead of simply winning the World Cup, Messi now had to do something special, something that I, and many others, were under the impression that he had been doing throughout the World Cup, more or less.
There are two explanations for the goal-posts shifting. Firstly, the generational obsession with forwarding one’s own as the greatest of all time poses an insurmountable obstacle. As time passes, legend grows with it too. The emotional connection that is created between idol and object of idolization lasts a lifetime. Secondly, Leo Messi has raised the standards of measurement and analysis to previously unseen levels. Its no longer enough to score a goal, but necessary to put out performances like the famous 4-goal haul in the Champions League against Arsenal regularly. Its no longer sufficient to score 40 goals a season, even though some of the world’s greatest players have never reached that tally, as it would be considered an average or poor season. Those are the criticisms thrown at Messi. Those or simplistic arguments like those put forward, last night during commentary, by BeIN Sports Andy Gray when he stated that he wants to see Messi “move more” and “he doesn’t look happy on the pitch” and “needs to help his defence out”.
Waking up this morning, had you had not watched any of the matches at this summer’s World Cup then you’d be inclined to think that Messi incurred an atrocious World Cup. To add context to the debate, Messi had 4 goals, 3rd in the list after Colombia’s James Rodriguez and Germany’s Thomas Muller. He added 3.3 key passes per game (via WhoScored), only behind Kevin De Bruyne from players who made it past the group stage, equating to 23 clear cut opportunities for teammates, more than any other player, and a World Cup leading 6.6 successful dribbles per game. Despite passing the ball less than Manuel Neuer, a fact widely informed to us today by Castrol Index, he still had more completed passes than either of Arjen Robben or Thomas Muller and averaged more than James Rodriguez or Neymar too. So did Messi have a poor World Cup, like Andy Gray reiterated on numerous occasions during the final? Absolutely not. Was Messi the best player of the tournament? That is probably open to debate, although Robben and Muller definitely had strong cases. James Rodriguez was arguably the type of breakthrough star that the World Cup has had in the past a la Toto Schillachi but his side failed to progress past the Quarter Finals. Neymar may have had a claim if his World Cup had not ended prematurely. Any number of German players could be considered contenders for that pointless award too, but what this World Cup, more than most others in the past, illustrated was the triumph of team over individual. Does it matter who wins the player of the tournament? Does it change anything when all is said and done? Should Messi have been embarrassed, like Gray said he should be, having been selected as the player of the tournament?
All in all, I would like to ask Mr. Gray what criteria he uses to assess players. He’s known to have stated on many occasions in the past that Cristiano Ronaldo is a better player than Leo Messi. To him, I’d like to say that the debate is no longer about Messi or Cristiano, as that train passed a long time ago. It is about Messi or Maradona or Pele. Its unlikely a unanimous or objective conclusion can be reached on this topic. If one factors the importance of the World Cup then Pele is arguably the best player of all time. Winning the World Cup once is one thing but it is not a coincidence that he won it thrice. Maradona’s generation of followers would probably limit the need of winning the World Cup to just one. Messi’s would probably negate it altogether and claim that the Champions League is played at a higher quality each and every season. It may well be. Unfortunately football does not have an easy way of making individuals stand apart from the team. As good as a single player can be, he cannot succeed without the right teammates and manager. This is undebatable. What is certain, though, is that there has never been as much scrutiny, cameras, technology, or analysis involved in football in the history of the game and to stand tall at the end of it all is a feat on its own.
What this summer’s World Cup did more than anything else is to have re-ignited the passion for the international game. The World Cup does matter. It matters a lot. It is the pinnacle of football. Ask any German footballer if they’d trade last night’s trophy in exchange for multiple Champions Leagues and league titles till the end of their career and the answer would be no. But what that means is that the debate over the greatest footballer of all time will probably remain inconclusive – for now. Simply put, there are far too many variables involved that makes it difficult to conclusively provide a single objective answer. Messi is great. Without a doubt. There will be a generation (this one) that will strongly put forward his case to be the greatest of all time when another contender to the tag comes along in 30 years time. By then, its likely that noises emanating from the Maradona camp would have died down just as had been the case with Pele’s. What we can’t argue about is that we are lucky to be witnessing someone of that caliber play right in front of our eyes, week after week, sometimes twice weekly. Its questionable that even Maradona or Pele’s greatest proponents had the privilege to watch and observe their hero play so often in an era with limited television coverage. Just to be having this debate right now is a testament to Messi’s greatness, barely at the age of 27.