Lionel Messi’s improbable feats with Barcelona have got the obituarists of international football and the World Cup sharpening their pens. Put them away chaps, the old tournament’s not done yet, not by a long chalk. Just ask the whole of Argentina...
This is what they’d have us believe. Lionel Messi has been so amazingly good for Barcelona over the last few seasons that true lasting greatness is already his, at the ridiculously early age of 23, regardless of what he may or may not achieve with Argentina in the future. And in attaining such sustained brilliance he has also revealed the chasm that now exists between the increasingly professional club game, typified by its Champions League flagship, and international football, headed up by the ever more irrelevant World Cup.
Apparently, the fact that Messi routinely gets it up in the sexy Champions League but goes all limp and flaccid in the World Cup reflects worse on the grand old tournament and international football in general than it does on the player. Once the true focal point of the global game, the World Cup, according to its detractors, can no longer be considered the “ultimate arbiter of greatness”, as Alex Di Mascio put it on this site yesterday in an excellently written but fundamentally flawed article. Messi, in short, doesn’t need the World Cup.
Maybe he doesn’t. I argued here a few weeks ago that he’s already up there with Maradona as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. I don’t buy the argument that just because El Diez single-handedly won Mexico 1986 Messi has to go and do the same at Brazil 2014 or Russia 2018 to be considered his equal. That’s too simplistic to my mind. His relentless magnificence has already earned him the right to be considered in the same breath as Maradona.
At least that’s what we Europeans think. The fact is, however, we don’t really have any right to say whether Messi needs to turn it on in the World Cup, not when a sizeable number of his compatriots have doubts about his ability to perform in the Albiceleste jersey, not when the emotional connect between Messi and his fellow countrymen continues to flicker on and off, and not when he is viewed by some back home as a “pecho frio” when he plays for his country, in other words as a player who lacks heart.
the Argentinians are watching, thinking: “Why the hell can’t he do this for us in every game?”
Put the “World Cup is an irrelevance” argument to an Argentinian and they’ll have a different take on it. They’ll tell you that no matter how many league and Champions League trophies El Pulga wins with Barcelona, he will never gain true acceptance alongside Maradona, will never attain the mantle of lasting greatness in his native country, unless he really produces for Argentina on the biggest stage of all. It’s the one major challenge he has left in his career, the one question mark he still has hanging over him, whether he likes it or not. And you feel sometimes that like it he does not. While the rest of the world continues to swoon at his improbable feats with Barcelona, the Argentinians are watching, thinking: “Why the hell can’t he do this for us in every game?”
They’re not the first to feel that way. As a youngster I was often perplexed at Kenny Dalglish’s inability to do for Scotland what he did week in week out for Liverpool. Sure, he’s the national team’s all-time joint-top scorer, but there’s no doubt Scotland only saw the best of Dalglish infrequently. And therein lies the intrinsic beauty and relevance of international football, its unique ability to set challenges that sometimes even the greatest and most gifted of players are unable to meet. There’s no logic to it, and to suggest that Messi’s failure to perform for Argentina is indicative of falling standards in international football is as ridiculous and as far-fetched as it would be to suggest the same was true 30-odd years ago, when Dalglish varied from the sublime for his club to the often underwhelming for his country.
Many great players have managed to bridge that club-country divide when the occasion has absolutely demanded. Others have not. One of my abiding memories of Johan Cruyff, one of the finest footballers ever seen, is him moaning at referee Jack Taylor during the 1974 World Cup final. Negated by Berti Vogts, the greatest player of his day faded from view in the biggest game of his career as the team of the tournament were deservedly undone by the best team in the tournament, who peaked when the occasion required.
Funnily enough, the last group of players to translate their club form effectively to the international stage were Messi’s Spanish team-mates, whose achievement in winning the World Cup last year was made even more remarkable by the fact that it came on the back of a long domestic season and immediately before another arduous and ultimately glorious club campaign. During their four weeks in South Africa, however, the performance levels of Spain’s Barça contingent did not dip, an indication that if there is a gulf anywhere in modern football it is between Barcelona and their domestic and European rivals, and between Spain and the rest of the world.
And if Messi wants to know what it really means to win the World Cup, all he has to do is ask Andres Iniesta. Already popular throughout Spain for his unassuming ways, Iniesta has now been elevated to the status of national treasure, not for the number of league and Champions League trophies he has won with Messi and Barcelona but for scoring the winning goal against Holland last July. The recipient of heartfelt standing ovations from the supporters of opposing clubs throughout the recently concluded season, Iniesta has had genuine lasting greatness conferred upon him. As the Argentinians will readily tell you, the World Cup has the power to do that like no other tournament.
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