Lionel Messi has won almost everything in the world of football. He’s won every domestic honor in Spain, the Champions League twice, the Ballon D’Or, and the honor of his name maybe being the most famous in all of football for this generation. But one spot in his trophy cabinet still collects dust: the spot where the World Cup Trophy would go. This is his final World Cup before he turns 30; he also will never have another chance in his career to play in a South American World Cup, and Argentina has waited 28 years for this parade. One might think 27 is too early to talk about legacies, but with a player of Messi’s caliber it’s necessary. So Brazil 2014 is not Messi’s final chance to hoist the trophy, but it will be his best yet, and perhaps his best opportunity left.
The pressure is always intense for one the world’s highest paid footballers, and the one with his name on almost everything football branded, but why does it seem that it’s higher this cycle? Is it because the rest of the world has caught up to the fact that this is Messi’s best chance to win a World Cup? I’ll have a pinch of that, with a dash of the debacle at Camp Nou thrown in. There has not been a season at Barcelona with Messi at the peak of his powers that has gone as sideways as the ’13-’14 campaign did. Part of that was injuries no doubt, but Messi was never fully himself this season, and maybe worst of all was that he was always in Ronaldo’s shadow as Real Madrid finally captured La Decima. The rivalry between football’s best 2 players (sorry Zlatan) seemed to tilt to Ronaldo’s ledger after many years being in Messi’s court, and maybe that’s why the pressure has mounted on the Barca star. But that’s not the whole story, of course.
Messi was too young to truly be the difference maker we all know him as now in his maiden World Cup voyage in 2006, and one may well argue that his manager was the fault in why Argentina crumbled in South Africa. He has no more excuses left; certainly not after what has happened in between the 4-0 loss to Germany and their first game against Bosnia on both club and country fronts. While Argentina is not as reliant on Messi as Portugal may be on Ronaldo and Sweden may be on Zlatan for example, la Albiceleste need Messi to be himself for Argentina to complete a legacy cinching and once in a lifetime type of World Cup odyssey. Maybe the pressure has ratcheted up because there will never be another chance for Argentina to win a World Cup on their great rivals home soil, and to pour salt in 64 year old wounds. As usual though, there’s still more.
We could explore the intricacies of the relative stability of the Argentine Federation in terms of manager and in team selection, but that would glance around the big factor at play here: This is a perfect storm for Messi and his team.
All of the stars have aligned over Alejandro Sabella’s team, maybe sans injuries as I write this. His squad is as strong as possible, he’s playing in a tournament in a country that he has previously successfully dealt with before. In addition it is possible that no team has an easier run to get to the quarterfinals than Argentina. This could prove to be the perfect first 4 games to get Lionel Messi back in the form Argentina need him in in order to lift the trophy, and for Argentina to finally get past the quarterfinals for the first time since 1990. When the stars align, the initiative must be seized.
Lionel Messi barring catastrophic injury or colossal loss of form will be present for Argentina at least through the 2022 World Cup, when he’ll be 35. But those 2 tournaments do not offer him the same opportunity that this one does to cement his legacy along with Pele and Maradona. All he needs is one, and this is the best one left.
It’s certainly not the last, but it is the best chance left. The pressure and the race are both on.