Not since Diego Maradona in 1986 has one player single-handedly inspired their nation to world cup glory. Roberto Baggio came close in 1994, with his goals leading Italy all the way to the final, and only four years ago a number of commanding displays by Zinedine Zidane almost helped France to their second title.
At this year's World Cup there are three players who have the capacity to lead their nation to glory. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is one, Argentina's Lionel Messi is another while England's Wayne Rooney is also capable of such a feat, despite his slow start.
These three players are truly exceptional talents. Both Ronaldo and Messi have already assured their place amongst the greats of football as they have been awarded FIFA world player of the year and Wayne Rooney is a good bet to pick up the award one day.
Of the three, there is one player that stands out as being more capable of inspiring their nation to success at this year's World Cup. This player is Lionel Messi.
Sure, many would argue that Cristiano Ronaldo is just as capable. However, Ronaldo’s significance to his Portugal side is largely limited due to his very selfish approach to the game.
For example, in what was the stand out performance of the tournament so far, when Portugal romped home with a seven point win against North Korea, it was not Ronaldo that inspired his country to such a resounding victory. Instead it was Tiago that orchestrated the Portuguese attack, setting up two goals and scoring two himself.
The qualities of Ronaldo no doubt have the ability to help Portugal to the latter stages of the tournament. However, his utterly selfish style limits him from actually leading his side to world cup victory.
As for Wayne Rooney, from what has already been seen in South Africa, it would take a brave man to bet on Rooney drastically improving his form to take England to World Cup victory.
Rooney has looked a shadow of the player he was during last season for Manchester United. Even if he picks up some form, doubts remain over Rooney’s temperament and leadership qualities to lead an under-performing English side to victory.
But in Lionel Messi, Argentina boasts one of the most complete players in the world. He can score goals, create goals, beat defenders seemingly at will, and is a master from the set piece. There is little the young 23-year-old from Rosario cannot do.
For Argentina, Messi is essential. Involved in virtually every attacking move for Argentina, the Barcelona star is the central focus of the Argentina attack. Messi is able to fulfil this role with great success because of two characteristics of his game that set him apart from both Ronaldo and Rooney.
First, Messi is an extremely intelligent footballer. He knows when to run at defenders and beat them and more importantly when not to. Unlike Ronaldo or Rooney, Messi is able to dictate the tempo of a game along with coordinating the attack of Maradona's Argentina.
Second, Messi is an unselfish player. Unlike Ronaldo, who continually tries to create goal scoring opportunities for himself by beating defenders, Messi is a team player. Since football is essentially a team sport, it is Messi's sense of team play that enables him to control matches. Coincidentally, this is what makes him so crucial to Argentina compared to Ronaldo's importance to Portugal.
In addition, Messi has also beat defenders at will and is capable of the extraordinary. His temperament and maturity also puts the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo to shame. It is well known that Rooney can be extremely volatile at times, especially when things are not going well. As for Ronaldo, he has a tendency to be petulant.
Lionel Messi seemingly has all the characteristics required of a player that can lead their nation to victory at a world cup. He has the skill, the intelligence, the maturity along with that essential ability of producing the impossible if needed.
If any one player is capable of delivering World Cup success at this year’s world cup, that player is Lionel Messi.