Can we just enjoy Lionel Messi as he is now?
Only hours remain before Germany and Argentina face off in the final of the 2014 World Cup. Messi is doing his best to try to spur his teammates on, per Bleacher Report UK:
World Cup finals are always highly anticipated affairs, but this match in particular carries with it an enormous secondary storyline.
With Argentina 90 minutes away from a World Cup title, many fans and pundits are viewing the final through the spectrum of Messi's overall legacy. Will a win over Germany make him the greatest footballer ever? Does he need to win multiple World Cups, as Pele did?
The first issue with this is that the comparison rests solely on the result of one match, which is an incredibly small sample size. Jeremy Stahl made that point for Slate:
It’s just one game, and hopefully it will be a great one, full of Messi moments and German brilliance. But only one side can win. And the victor is supposed to decide the “greatness” of Germany and of Messi forever and ever?
This German team is at worst the second-best team of the past decade and one of the top international teams in recent history. Messi is the greatest player of his generation and one of the best of all-time. The result of Sunday’s World Cup final won’t change those two facts. Unless somebody wins 7-1.
By all accounts, Messi has been as good as you could've expected in this World Cup. He scored what proved to the winning goals against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran and assisted on Angel Di Maria's 118th-minute winner against Switzerland.
WhoScored.com has rated Messi as the best player in the tournament (8.77). Winning the World Cup, especially in Brazil, would be a monumental achievement, but losing in a final doesn't invalidate everything that the Argentine star has done up until this moment.
Does what Arjen Robben, James Rodriguez, Neymar and Keylor Navas have done get completely disregarded because their teams are already eliminated?
Plus, if Messi's father is to be believed, via journalist John Carlin, he isn't even 100 percent:
Messi "is exhausted and feels as if his legs weigh 100 kilos each," his father Jorge told Folha de São Paulo. http://t.co/1PDHl6gZto— John Carlin (@JohnCarlin5) July 10, 2014
Given how little Messi has run throughout the tournament, it would make sense that he's carrying some sort of injury. Despite that, the playmaker hasn't seen a drop in form. Slate's Ken Early argued that the 27-year-old has discovered how to limit his movement but retain maximum effectiveness:
No doubt Messi's economy of effort was part of the reason why he had the strength, in the 118th minute, to accelerate beyond the exhausted challenge of Schär and roll that precise assist into the path of di María. Messi’s run to set up the goal was clocked at 27.58 km/hr, and it was the fastest he had moved in the match.
To say that Messi limits his running because he wants to save his energy for when he really needs it is probably true, but misses a larger point. Lots of players know how to pace themselves. Only Messi has figured out how to win matches by moving less than everyone else. While the others are running just to keep up, Messi only has to walk to stay one step ahead.
People have been waiting for Messi to prove himself on the international stage, and that's exactly what he's done this summer.
In all reality, though, any discussion of Messi, Maradona and Pele should be moot.
You simply can't judge the merits of one player with another when they come from different eras in the game; you can never know how stars like Maradona or Pele would perform in 2014, just as you can never know how Messi would have performed in the 1970s or 1980s.
All you can do is juxtapose top stars with others from their generation, where the playing environments are largely the same.
Right now, the only player who could possibly touch Messi is Cristiano Ronaldo. Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Fabio Cannavaro, etc. are all unquestionably talented, but they aren't the transcendent talents that Messi and Ronaldo are.
Some might argue that the Real Madrid winger is the better player, which has been the case over the last year or two. In terms of an entire career, though, the Barcelona star gets the edge.
He's won six league titles, compared to four for Ronaldo, and has one more Champions League triumph. Messi also has two more Ballon d'Or trophies than his La Liga counterpart. Ronaldo's international record is also arguably worse than Messi's as well.
Greatness is never truly appreciated in its own time. Too many are often too quick to try to pick away at Messi's accomplishments without truly taking into account how unbelievably talented he is.
While it's tempting to gauge whether he's the greatest ever, simply being the greatest of his era should suffice. And that discussion doesn't change with the result of Sunday's final.