Lionel Messi has to face jibes that he won't equal Maradona until he wins a World Cup. Nonsense, Barcelona have proven that domestic and European success is the new Jules Rimet...
What separates Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona and Ronaldo from Ferenc Puskas, Johan Cruyff and Paolo Maldini? While all six are considered greats, the former three confirmed their greatness by winning the World Cup. Debates over who can lay claim to being the greatest footballer of all time inevitably return to the World Cup. Pele won an astonishing trio of Jules Rimets with Brazil while Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to their 1986 triumph single-handedly. We look back at most of these players as part of the myth and mystique of the World Cup and the glory days of international football as the ultimate arbiter of greatness. The World Cup has been host to some truly amazing clashes between players. Iconic battles like Charlton vs Beckenbauer or Pele vs Moore symbolised the clash of the greatest players on the planet competing against each other for the highest of stakes.
Then along came Messi. At the age of 23 he has already risen to the level of the world's best player and is beginning to knock on the door of the all time greats. This career, contrary to tradition, has been made with success at the World Cup absent from his role of honours. His couple of WC quarter final appearances seem out of place next to the 3 Champions League titles for Barcelona. These reminders of also ran status seem glaringly out of place next to the claims of club football who state him as one of the all time greatest players.
No matter the location, occasion, or opposition he produces.
Leo Messi is doing a lot of extraordinary things but one of the most fascinating sub-plots to his performances over the last two seasons is that he has highlighted just how far the World Cup is falling behind club football in general and the Champions League specifically. With the support he receives from Xavi and Dani Alves in particular he has been able to flourish. He's scored 100 goals in the last two seasons in all competitions. No matter the location, occasion, or opposition he produces. Two wonderful strikes against Madrid in this year’s Champions League semi-final as well as two goals in two Champions League finals against Manchester United. What Messi has done in a Barcelona shirt far outstrips his achievements in an Argentinian one.
The cohesiveness of Barcelona, which runs through the club from the La Masia academy to the first team, has created a system which allows the world's best player to do truly great things on a football pitch. National teams don’t have this level of access to the players and coaches cannot hope to immerse players in a particular style of play with the time they have available. Only teams with long established styles of play (Brazil being the best example) can hope to fashion the players they have into a truly great international side. The gulf in resources between clubs and countries is growing at an astonishing rate.
Messi and Barcelona are showing week in and week out the decline of the people's football. Football tactics and players are becoming ever more sophisticated. Teams such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea employ such professionalism to their craft which the national sides cannot hope to emulate as they simply do not have the funds and time with the players that the top club sides have. Teams like Manchester United have averaged 50 plus games a season in all competitions allowing the squad to gel into an effective unit. International sides in contrast have a much more limited number of fixtures and their difficulties are compounded by senior players often pulling out of friendlies like Stevie *cough* Gerrard. The top clubs are increasingly able to manipulate their players’ fitness levels with Barcelona's training regime designed to create two peaks in the season, around November and in April-May for the final run in. Capello's insistence after the disappointing draw with Switzerland that his players were exhausted following a gruelling season may have sounded like an excuse, but it reflects the reality that he can only have access to his players after the clubs have been able to squeeze the last drop of effort from them.
These factors all reflect the new reality that club football is pulling further and further away from the national game. The increasingly slick and professionalised club game is leaving the romantic notion of the nation team competing at the highest level behind. Messi is the symbol of a process which has been evolving for some time, his greatness and fame has increasingly little to do with the World Cup.
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