Lifting World Cup Would Enhance Philipp Lahm's Legacy More Than Lionel Messi's

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Lifting World Cup Would Enhance Philipp Lahm's Legacy More Than Lionel Messi's
Martin Rose/Getty Images

Much of football's enduring popularity lies in its innate simplicity.

Much of football is about glory. Inevitably, the glory lies in winning. Winning, unless penalties become involved, is about scoring the most goals.

As a result, it is the prolific goalscorer who is always going to be the one who attracts the attention, the headlines, the awards and the endorsements.

One can debate endlessly about whether creating goals or preventing them is the more complex art, but it is undeniable that it is the attacking players who always end up taking the lion's share of the credit once the final whistle is blown.

For no player is that truer than Lionel Messi, who will captain Argentina in Sunday's World Cup final.

Messi, who has scored 354 goals in 425 competitive games for his club side Barcelona, has long been regarded as the world's greatest player for his unmatched ability at putting the ball in the net.

As a player, he has won every individual accolade, and with him as their talisman, Barcelona have won every major trophy at least a few times over.

That success is still to convert to international level, however, where Argentina have not won a major trophy since 1993.

As the received wisdom goes, winning the World Cup, as his countryman Diego Maradona famously did in 1986, would put Messi among the greatest ever to play the game, alongside (and perhaps even above) Pele and Maradona as the most vaunted of all.

Standing in the way of Messi and that opportunity is Germany, the same country Maradona faced in that 1986 final (well, West Germany). If they end up preventing the 27-year-old further elevating his place in the pantheon, then it is his opposite number, Philipp Lahm, who will lift the World Cup inside the famous Maracana instead.

For Lahm, winning the tournament would also increase his reputation, perhaps securing him the legacy he undoubtedly deserves. His record is similar to that of Franz Beckenbauer, arguably his country's best-ever player and one of the few defenders to occupy the space just beneath Pele and Maradona in the all-time rankings.

Lahm is arguably already approaching Beckenbauer's class (he has won more Bundesliga titles and German cups than the great centre-back did in his career, albeit two fewer European crowns). Lifting the World Cup, as Beckenbauer did in 1974, might narrow the gap further.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

At 30, Lahm has seen his reputation rise exponentially in the past 18 months, even as he transitions towards the "elder statesman" phase of his career.

Part of that is the influence of Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, who helped everyone appreciate the player's greatness when he began employing Lahm, a career full-back, as a defensive midfielder upon his arrival at the club at the start of last season.

He then proceeded to laud Lahm as the smartest player he had ever worked with, high praise from a man who had previously coached the likes of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

"Philipp Lahm is the most intelligent player I have managed in my career," Guardiola told reporters last August, not long before a famous picture highlighting Lahm's importance to Guardiola's tactical plans appeared on social media.

As the Spaniard subsequently added: "I've often said he can play in 10 positions; the only place I can't play him is in goal.

"He always pays attention to the details, wherever he plays. But the most important thing is that, wherever he plays, he always plays well."

That appears to be especially true in a World Cup, a tournament in which this is the first time Lahm has reached the final but the third in which he has been involved in its final weekend.

Over those eight years, he has been both a constant presence and a prototype for a new type of Germany, one with a more fluid approach to winning football matches.

"It has been a time to redefine the idea of what 'German virtues' really are," Lahm wrote in his autobiography.

"For decades the national side's strength was the way we could be dangerous in orthodox situations and vigilant at the back.

"We now have creativity in our build-up and really gifted individuals on the ball."

In 2006, his first tournament (where Germany were hosts), he famously scored the opening goal of the competition—a brilliant curling effort after just six minutes against Costa Rica.

It was hard not to be immediately impressed by a 22-year-old right-footer with the skill and intelligence to play at left-back, as he did in that tournament and through much of the early part of his career (while on loan at Stuttgart that was his quickest route to the first team, so he "misled" the coach about his previous experience in the role).

Germany went on to lose in the semi-finals, but Lahm was included in the FIFA team of the tournament. Four years on, the two outcomes were repeated, with Die Nationalmannschaft once again winning the third-place play-off.

This time they are in the final, while Lahm is almost guaranteed to make it a hat-trick of team-of-the-tournament appearances. But he is also one of the 10 players on the shortlist for the Golden Ball (awarded to the competition’s best player), a bigger honour that speaks to his evolving role and importance to his team.

Under Guardiola, a coach constantly seeking evolution in his teams, Lahm has played many games as a defensive midfielder, where his ability to read the game and distribute the ball in an accurate, precise manner has helped lay the foundation for what Guardiola wants to achieve when in possession.

But he has reverted to his familiar full-back role when injuries, suspensions or tactical tweaks have demanded it, a pattern that has been repeated over the course of this international tournament.

Martin Rose/Getty Images

For Germany, Lahm started the group stages as a defensive midfielder, albeit through necessity as much as anything else.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira both struggling for full fitness, Lahm was the best available option to slot in to the role, giving a team beset by injuries a semblance of stability due to the understanding he already had with Bayern teammates Toni Kroos and (to a lesser extent) Thomas Mueller.

That meant coach Joachim Low had to employ four centre-backs across his defensive line, but he evidently felt that was the best compromise available to him, the best allocation of the resources at that time.

It was an imperfect solution, however, with Germany looking occasionally exposed at the back, even as they progressed to the last eight of the competition.

In the last-16 meeting with Algeria, the midfield looked particularly unbalanced, with Lahm too often pushing forward (as he would ordinarily for Bayern) and failing to receive the same cover he had come to expect with his club side.

In his Bleacher Report column following the 2-1 extra-time win over Algeria, former Germany international Dietmar Hamann wrote:

Lahm should be the security, but time and time again on the counter-attack he rarely offers any protection. He was joining up with the play while the team was in possession, often ending up on one of the wings or beyond even the forwards, and this is not what you want from your holding midfielder.

By the time the quarter-final with France came around, however, both Khedira and Schweinsteiger were considered fit enough to start, enabling Low to return Lahm to right-back.

The captain immediately began to star in his most familiar position, offering a rock-solid defensive presence but also a width and additional attacking threat that had been noticeably absent from the team prior to that.

Lahm's presence up and down that flank was not a decisive element in the 7-1 semi-final demolition of Brazil, but it undoubtedly gave the team an added dimension that they continued to exploit as the scoreline increased.

Few players have moved between such starkly different roles in such a fashion, even fewer to such success.

"Lahm is a phenomenon, the definition of the multifaceted player," as Beckenbauer once explained (per The Daily Telegraph). "He finds it is easy to adapt to every position."

Martin Rose/Getty Images

Low has had little issue altering his starting XI to accommodate the threat of the opposition in this World Cup, and the final may not prove any different.

With Benedikt Howedes, a centre-back, likely to come up against Messi if he continues in the left-back role he has occupied for much of the tournament, it is not inconceivable that Low will swap him with Lahm—leaving his captain to deal with the best individual player of his generation.

Lahm will never score the goals that Messi does, impressing instead through his consistency and the absence of mistakes. Nevertheless, winning the World Cup would give him a body of work equal to almost any of the true greats of the game.

Few defenders, and even fewer full-backs, have ever received such recognition. Lahm would be a worthy candidate to break the mould.

"I don't know any player who for years has constantly been playing on such a high level," as Beckenbauer, the greatest of all defenders, said last year (per ESPNFC). "Not a single one."

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