Orville Higgins | Messi delivers in most important game
Lionel Messi on Tuesday night went a far way to preserve his legacy. He is regarded by many as the greatest ever. His critics feel that his Achilles heel has been his penchant for not stepping up to deliver for Argentina on the big occasions. The truth is that Messi has never ever been anything but good for Argentina. There are times, though, when being good wasn't enough. To whom much is given, much is expected, and there are times when the weight of expectations for his country seems to overwhelm him. Sometimes he was needed to be a genius when he was merely being great. On Tuesday, Argentina was on the verge of being eliminated from the 2018 Russia World Cup. Messi knew that he would be the one to take the brunt of the blame if Argentina failed to advance. He has taken a career worth of criticism for not delivering at the biggest of all stages, the World Cup. If he endured so much flak for not delivering at the business end of a World Cup, can you imagine what the backlash would be if he failed to carry Argentina to one?
Messi, on Tuesday night, was playing in probably the most important game of his career. No other game in his life would have been as talked about if Argentina lost. No other game would the critics so use to define his career. Messi knew it, and the pressure was palpable. If Argentina had lost, it wouldn't have been Messi's fault, but it's pointless to tell his critics that. The raw truth is that Messi's teammates at Argentina have been average without him. Argentina played 18 games in these qualifiers of which Messi played only 10. In those 10 games, he scored seven of the 13 goals Argentina scored. In those 10 games, Argentina won six, drew three, and lost only once. That means that with Messi, they got 21 of the 30 points available. Without Messi, they played eight games and won only once, losing three and drawing four, getting a mere seven points from a maximum 24. From these numbers, it's plain to see that there are two Argentinas. With Messi they roar; without him they whimper.
If Messi had played in all the games, Argentina wouldn't have been in the predicament they found themselves in, but his critics wouldn't want to hear that.
DELIVERING UNDER PRESSURE
Messi then had to deliver on Tuesday night. Very few world greats have been placed under so much pressure to perform - not Bolt, not Jordan, not Bradman, not Ali. The World Cup comes up once every four years. In no other sport does the star athlete have to wait as long to strut his stuff on the biggest stage. The Olympics, you could argue, is also every four years, but the World Championship is only ranked slightly below and could always be used to avenge defeats and reclaim lost glory. I was worried for him. I didn't expect him to do quite as well as he did. In those 90 minutes, Messi demonstrated that if only he could develop the same mental side as Maradona, he wouldn't be inferior to anyone. Tuesday night, he sizzled in a high-pressure game in a way that few have.
The third goal in the hat-trick was unblemished genius. To "chip" a goalkeeper going at full pace is as difficult a skill as there is in all of sports. Messi did it with such nonchalance that one may be fooled into believing it was easy. Neither Maradona nor PelÈ would have, maybe could have, scored a goal like that. What they had over Messi was temperament. In other words, they were able to will themselves to perform at the highest stage while Messi struggled. Where the pressure seems to deflate Messi, Maradona thrived on it. After that game against Ecuador, Messi didn't just qualify his team for the World Cup, he restored the belief that on football skills alone, he was as good as anyone who ever played.
But Tuesday night was not just about blinding skills. We have seen that before. Last night was about passion. After scoring the first goal, he ran for the ball, took it up out of the goal, and ran with it to the half line. I have never seen him do that before. This wasn't just about a genius in his element. This was about a man who was prepared to be a warrior. After I saw him do that, I knew Ecuador was dead. If he needed to score five goals to send Argentina through, he would have got them. Messi is not the best ever. He hasn't done enough at the World Cup to get that honour, but next summer, if he really wants to, he can put himself out of the reach of everyone.
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.