Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Oral Tracey | True greatness eluding Messi

Published:Monday | June 25, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Argentina’s Lionel Messi (left) controls the ball next to Croatia’s Ivan Strinic during their Group D FIFA World Cup match at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, last Thursday.

The little football maestro Lionel Andres Messi Cuccittini remains the quintessential superstar of the modern game. In terms of technical skills and raw natural ability, Messi has no equal. Deft touches, dribbles, passes, assists goals, titles and accolades, Messi has been the most complete player of his generation, but only for his club, Barcelona.

Messi's legacy as an all-time great of the game remains under a cloud because of the inexplicable disparity in the quality of his club performances and achievements compared to his international performances and achievements. In 13 years as a senior Barcelona player, Messi has won nine LaLiga titles, four UEFA Champions League titles, three FIFA Club World Club titles, three UEFA Super Cup titles, and countless other domestic silverware. Based on his unstoppable individual brilliance and goal-scoring prowess, Messi was voted FIFA Ballon d'Or winner (best player in the world award) on five occasions. Apart from his formal awards, it remains the clear consensus across the international football fraternity that Lionel Messi has been the best player in the world for the past decade.

As brilliantly conspicuous as his club career has been, though, Messi has conversely been an abysmal flop at the international level, where in over a decade as a full senior international, Messi has failed to win a single title with an Argentina team that is consistently ranked in the world's top five. Two Copa America finals and now playing in his fourth FIFA World Cup finals and Messi has fizzed, flopped and failed to win on each occasion. He was an 18-year-old youngster coming off the bench in his first World Cup in 2006. He flattered to deceive for the first time in 2010 as Argentina got clobbered and illuminated 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-final.

Messi went back to his club and continued his marauding and imperious dominance, scoring goals, winning titles, and generally enhancing his reputation as the best player on the planet. The World Cup finals in 2014 were set for Messi's home continent of South America and represented the perfect stage for the little master to cement his legacy as one of, if not the greatest player of all time.

Messi led from the front as Argentina got through the first round comfortably and eventually clawed their way into the final to face Germany. Again, Messi went passively and eventually invisibly, failing to grasp the moment as Mario Gotze's extra-time strike handed Germany the title. This was the World Cup that Messi should have won. Instead, it signalled the beginning of the process of true greatness eluding the little Argentine. It could not be the fault of his teammates when the greatest offensive genius of the modern game spends 120 minutes in a World Cup final and fails so miserably to make an impression while his team sinks to defeat. Add similar disappearing acts in the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals, and you get the making of a 'club bully', with now a clear pattern of failure at the international level.

Russia 2018 is supposed to be the redemption tournament for Lionel Messi - his last realistic chance to get the proverbial monkey off his back. Again, it is not happening. The monkey has taken an even firmer grip as Argentina, with merely one point from their first two games, flirt with an embarrassing first-round exit from the World Cup.

Messi has been awfully ineffective, nervous, and timid in the moments when Argentina need him most. Certainly not the stuff of which greatness is made.

With news emerging of rifts and tension in the Argentina camp, and with Messi's nemesis and main rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, setting the tournament alight with four goals in his first two games, the signs are clear that Messi's World Cup charge, along with his legacy, are once again falling apart. The man born with arguably the most natural football talent is failing to do complete justice to that talent. Despite being so much better than all his peers, Lionel Messi continues to flop on the biggest stage as true greatness continues to elude him. The saving grace for Messi is that he and Argentina are still in with a mathematical chance of getting it done and salvaging his legacy, but I would not bet a dollar on that happening.