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Would Winning the World Cup Make Lionel Messi the Greatest Ever?

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 09:  Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates defeating the Netherlands in a shootout during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo on July 9, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images
Sam PilgerFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

On Sunday, Lionel Messi will play for not one, but two titles when he faces Germany in the World Cup final at the Maracana

If Argentina should triumph over such an obviously talented German side, Messi would forever be known as a World Cup winner. But there is an even greater prize on offer: A World Cup win would also allow Messi to be hailed as the greatest footballer to ever grace the game.

Many already recognise the Barcelona striker as the best ever, even better than Pele and Diego Maradona, but as Messi has never won a World Cup like them, there will always be an asterisk by his name and an easy argument for his detractors.

By lifting the World Cup on Sunday, Messi would, at a single stroke, silence this argument. He would be hailed as the greatest ever without any caveats.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 09:  Lionel Messi of Argentina controls the ball as (L-R) Georginio Wijnaldum, Nigel de Jong and Ron Vlaar give chase during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Pau
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There would no longer be any holes in the argument that Messi is the greatest ever. Instead, it would focus us on the weaknesses of his two closest rivals.

Pele never proved his talent outside of South and North America, and certainly not in any of the world’s leading leagues in Europe. Compare that to Messi, who has been the best player in both the Champions League and La Liga, the best league in the world, for six consecutive seasons and counting.

Maradona did play in the world’s best leagues, both in Italy and in Spain, for a full decade, but he only played a mere six games in the European Cup and never won it. Compare that to Messi, who has scored an incredible 69 goals in 89 games in the Champions League and won the tournament three times.

Carlo Fumagalli/Associated Press

Of course, these arguments are inherently fraught with problems, and comparing players from three different eras is clearly imperfect. The biggest influence tends to be whether you were present in that era.

For those around in the late 1950s and '60s, it was Pele for his unique brilliance, three World Cup wins and over 1,000 goals. I am a child of the '80s and will never forget watching in awe as Maradona guided Argentina to the World Cup in 1986.

But I never saw either of them in the flesh, whereas I have seen Messi several times, including on possibly his greatest-ever night, when he scored in Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley three years ago.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 03:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona competes for the ball among Getafe CF players during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Getafe CF at Nou Camp on May 3, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

My son Louis will turn nine later this month and is already both obsessive and impressively knowledgeable about the game. I wanted to take him to see the best player of his era, and arguably the best ever, so at the end of last season we went to watch Messi on a sunlit afternoon at Camp Nou.

The game finished in a 2-2 draw with Getafe, and while it was clearly not his best game, Messi still scored a fine goal and captivated us with his aura and sheer genius.

It has been the same at this World Cup, where Messi has veered between the shackled anonymity of the semi-final win over Holland (though his penalty proved crucial in the shootout) and the decisive brilliance he showed with his four goals in the group stages and that equally important assist against Switzerland in the second round.

The simple truth is Argentina have made it this far because of Messi.

If he were now to win the final against Germany, it would remove the last obstacle to him being revered as the greatest footballer ever.

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