Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Moore—history’s greatest players lead their countries to football’s ultimate prize, and this year it could be the turn of four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi to cement his place among the very best.
For club side Barcelona, Messi has achieved everything both domestically and on the continent. His list of winners medals is only surpassed by the individual accolades of arguably the world’s greatest-ever player. A World Cup triumph would be the crowning achievement in what is already an illustrious career; the fact this year’s event occurs in South America simply adds the icing on the cake.
When you look at his achievements within the game, it becomes easy to forget that the Argentinian star is still only 26 years old. It’s possible that the phenomenal forward could yet feature in another two World Cups, but make no mistake, this is his biggest chance to shine on the greatest stage of all.
For all the fantastic work he’s done at Barcelona, Messi still has his fair share of critics—many of whom point a finger toward his international record when voicing their doubts. In eight World Cup matches, the Argentina talisman has registered just one goal, and that is a constant source of reference for those who argue against his talent.
However, that strike during the 6-0 demolition of Serbia did make him the sixth-youngest scorer in World Cup history.
Messi himself will admit that the 2010 World Cup was not a tournament to remember. Five games, no goals and the humiliation of a 4-0 quarter-final loss to Germany probably signals one of the worst experiences in a career largely filled with trophy after trophy for the Albiceleste star. He will be determined to make amends in Brazil.
Whilst he may have surrendered his grip on the Ballon d’Or after losing out to Cristiano Ronaldo on the 2013 award, Messi is still the star attraction of world football and—alongside fellow Barcelona star Neymar—the hottest property going into this year’s tournament in Brazil.
And though the critics will point toward his poor showing in previous World Cups, the fact is that Messi’s form for Argentina has been better than ever over the last couple of years.
With Brazil already qualified through virtue of being the host nation, Argentina eased through the Conmebol qualification process by topping the group of nine. Messi finished as the zone’s second top scorer, just one behind Luis Suarez, with 10 strikes in 14 appearances.
If Messi can replicate that form during the summer, then Argentina have a great chance of going all the way in Brazil; it would be their first World Cup triumph since Maradona inspired the country in 1986.
Whilst the forward’s recent hamstring injury has disrupted his season at club level and could yet prove to be the crucial element if Barcelona fail to retain their La Liga crown, it could allow him to flourish in Brazil.
By the time June arrives, many of Europe’s elite stars will have played 50, 60, even 70 matches without any significant break and will therefore be susceptible to "burn out." Messi, on the other hand, should be at optimum performance.
The player himself told BBC Football Focus "slowly but surely I will be getting there to hopefully peak at the right time of the year," and you have to wonder whether fate has actually helped one of the sport’s most naturally gifted talents as he prepares for what could be a career-defining tournament.
Climate conditions in Brazil have been a hot topic of discussion during the buildup to this tournament and it is widely believed that many European players will struggle with the South American humidity—that will not pose a problem to Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina.
If Argentina are to record their third World Cup trophy, then it’s likely that Messi will be the main man; with the relatively easy group of Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia Herzegovina, you wouldn’t bet against him claiming the Golden Boot, either.
Starring on the grandest stage of all can propel a player into the realms of immortality. For a striker of Messi’s caliber, it could ensure that he goes down as the all-time greatest.
Can Messi join former greats Moore, Ronaldo, Pele and Co. by lifting the trophy on July 13th? Let us know your thoughts below.