As the World Cup quarterfinals come to a finish today, we have already seen the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and the whole Spanish side falter in the Group Stage. No Ronaldo and no Spain opens the door for Lionel Messi to stake his claim as the best in the world by leading an underwhelming Argentina side to its first World Cup title since the days of Diego Maradona in 1986.
Messi has already participated in two previous World Cups. In 2006, he played mostly in a substitute role. The 2010 World Cup saw Messi make the list for potential Golden Ball (Player of the Tournament) candidates. Now, Messi has helped Argentina progress through to the quarterfinals, where they face Belgium on Saturday (Noon ET/9am PT). Furthermore, Argentina has not performed to the standards expected of them once the draw gave them arguably one of the weakest groups in the World Cup. It has been up to Messi to score a wonderful goal against Bosnia to put Argentina ahead 2-0 and hold off for a 2-1 win. Iran proved a much tougher test holding Argentina level through 90 minutes. However, it was the left foot of Messi that snatched a victory away from a match that looked destined to end in a 0-0 draw – 1-0 for Argentina. Finally, Messi scored quickly against Nigeria and then again from a brilliant set piece to help Argentina to a 3-2 victory taking all three group matches.
What makes this World Cup so different for Lionel Messi is that he has become comfortable with the role of dominant leader of a talented, but underperforming, Argentinian side. Such was the ways of Diego Maradona in the 1980s. As Maradona looked on during the Iran match, announcers spoke of the curse Maradona had on Argentina – largely connected to his terrible management of the 2010 World Cup. However, it seemed that as the ball curled towards the top corner from Messi’s magical left foot that finally the Messi hype moved beyond the brilliance at Barcelona and onto the global stage.
The greatest players in the world may be phenomenal for their club, but their World Cup performance ultimately dictates their legacy. Cristiano Ronaldo has experienced ups and downs during the World Cup. David Beckham will never live down his red card in the 1998 World Cup. Pelé played in four World Cups and led Brazil to three championships in those four tries (although not playing most of the 1962 tournament due to injury). Maradona gave Argentina his only World Cup crown in 1986 and led them back to the Final in 1990. These are the World Cup legends that will live in infamy. It is the World Cup that makes them.
Now, as Messi enters the quarterfinals with arguably one of the easiest paths to the semi-finals against either Netherlands or Costa Rica, a nation’s hopes have not been higher in 20 years. The talent level for the squad is undeniable. However, their performances have been found wanting. And yet, they have won each game. Why? It does not take a rocket scientist to notice that Messi has carried this side. He is making a case for the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot (Top Goal Scorer). If Higuain, Agüero, Mascherano and di María decide to begin playing well, Argentina will easily be a favorite, if not THE favorite, to win the World Cup particularly given the injury to Neymar, which has ruled him out of the World Cup.
So, what will it take to solidify Messi as one of, or maybe the greatest of all time? Given the status of Maradona around the globe, and the fact that he only won one World Cup, a single World Cup title will place Messi in the top 3 players of all time and could give him more credibility to challenge Pelé as the greatest footballer to ever live, as well as to stake a claim as the current world’s best footballer, surpassing Cristiano Ronaldo. Certainly winning multiple World Cup titles will place him in those discussions, but the first one is there for the taking and his performance, beginning today, will start the path to etching Messi’s name along with the greats. He is still only 27 years of age. This gives him at least one more World Cup appearance – and likely two. However, the quarterfinals can be cruel. Today begins the journey for Lionel Messi to steal the show of the 2014 World Cup and place himself among the greats of world soccer.