Lionel Messi Clawing Out of Maradona's Shadow at 2014 World Cup

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Lionel Messi Clawing Out of Maradona's Shadow at 2014 World Cup
Jon Super/Associated Press

It's not enough to be good. It's not enough to be great. It's not enough to be your country's top player. It's not enough to be the world's best player. It's not enough to win a few games. It's not enough to score a few goals. It's not enough to be soccer's version of Atlas.

It's not enough.

Unless you can surpass the legend, that is. Unless you can crawl free from the shadow of Argentina's greatest hero, Diego Maradona.

Welcome to life as Lionel Messi. And welcome to the 2014 World Cup, where despite the immense pressure he finds himself under, Messi appears to be wading free from the undertow of Maradona's legacy, the man who famously led Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986.

Who could ever forget this moment, after all?

But with two crucial goals in two games thus far in the tournament, Messi is making his own memories. Still, it's been a long road to get here.

Messi's done everything at the club level. La Liga titles? He has six of those. Champions League titles? He has three. Ballon d'Ors? He won four in a row from 2009-12. Historical achievements? He scored 91 goals for club and country in 2012, a record tally.

You name it, he's done it. 

Alex Caparros/Getty Images

But he hasn't been able to conquer the international level. He hasn't ever been as beloved in Argentina as he is around the world. (The fact that he left to play for Barcelona as a youngster has a lot to do with that.) He's just never been Maradona to them.

Heck, he's never been Carlos Tevez, a player adored by Argentines.

But the World Cup has been his chance to change all of that. At the 2006 World Cup, he was just 18 years old. He scored a goal as a reminder to all that glory would come. And boy, did it ever. By the time the 2010 World Cup rolled around, Messi was established as a global superstar and was already arguably the game's top player.

But the 22-year-old wasn't up to the task. He helped lead Argentina to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Germany, but he didn't score a single goal in the process. And it didn't help that Argentina's manager at that World Cup just so happened to Maradona.

The shadow grew longer. 

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

But this year has been different. Manager Alejandro Sabella has really built this team around Messi, and thus far it has shown. While the Argentines haven't exactly won decisively as of yet, Messi has provided two absolute moments of magic for his country. 

Up 1-0 after an early Bosnia and Herzegovina own goal but watching the game slowly slip away as the second half wore on, with momentum starting to build for the European side, Messi made a scintillating run and ripped a shot on his favored left foot that Asmir Begovic couldn't stop. 

ESPN passes along the goal:

The goal would prove huge, as Bosnia and Herzegovina would get one back. But Argentina had their 2-1 win, and Messi was the difference.

But against Iran, he was the hero.

After 90 minutes of parking the bus, clogging the passing lanes, defending like madmen and clearly gunning for the draw, Iran was this close to shutting out Argentina and earning a crucial point. It would have been a point well-earned. Really, losing the match would have been cruel. 

And then this happened, via ESPN FC:

Give Messi an inch and a few seconds, and he'll break your heart.

Everyone watching went nuts. Back in Argentina, they surely went nuts. This was what Messi could do. This was his moment. This was the superstar putting the team on his back and winning a game his team perhaps did not deserve to win. 

Messi's manager knew he had bailed them out, via Tom Marshall of ESPN FC:

His teammate for both club and country, Javier Mascherano, was not so surprised to see Messi pull the rabbit from his hat, via Dermot Corrigan of ESPN:

And Messi, well, he just seemed to enjoy the moment, per Juan Arango of The Telegraph:

But the moment itself was also hugely symbolic, as we would find out later. Why? Because the shadow himself, Maradona, had been in the stands but had decided to leave early, clearly giving up hope that Argentina could win.

From Miguel Delaney of ESPN:

It gets better, as Ed Malyon of the Daily Mirror tweeted:

It would appear the irony and symbolism of that moment wasn't lost on anyone. 

And so the shadow recedes. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But there is work to be done. Argentina are already through to the knockout phase, yes, and likely will be playing Switzerland or Ecuador when they get there, meaning a spot in the quarterfinals is probable. But reaching the quarterfinals, or semifinals, or the final itself won't be enough. 

No, to make the shadow disappear completely, Messi must lead Argentina to a World Cup title. So far, Messi has shone brightly enough to create a shadow of his own. But Maradona lingers. It might not seem fair to define so much of Messi's legacy by this World Cup—especially when it comes on Brazilian soil, especially when he's accomplished so much already—but this title remains the only obstacle Messi has yet to conquer. 

For many, it's the only thing that will be enough. But so far, the smallest man on the pitch has seemed quite comfortable shouldering the largest burden.

 

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