As the 2014 World Cup in Brazil draws near, certain expectations start to form. The location, for reasons of history and stereotypical images of samba football, means that many are predicting a great festival of the game. The hosts naturally are expected to do well. Meanwhile the eyes of the world turn to Lionel Messi and wonder whether he can deliver something truly special.
Almost since his Barcelona debut people have wondered quite what this phenomenal player might achieve. The comparisons with greats of the past, particularly his compatriot Diego Maradona, have followed throughout his career so far. Unquestionably his club exploits place him among the highest rank of football legends. The consistent brilliance that he has displayed over recent years mean that few could dispute his place within that most exalted company, but what about his contribution on the international stage, and how might that change based on Brazil 2014?
For many critics of the Argentine number 10, the World Cup represents the ultimate hurdle and a competition in which he is yet to impress. When looking at the legends of yesteryear, the World Cup is often held up as the ultimate barometer of success, but it isn’t exclusively the case. Neither George Best nor Alfredo Di Stefano ever played on the greatest stage, yet few would dispute their miraculous gifts. In their own ways, Best’s flame burning brightly but briefly while Di Stefano’s peerless play continued late into his 30s, each illustrated such ability and technique that they have a wealth of advocates happy to place them as the finest ever.
Of the wider collection of the game’s greatest figures, the likes of Ferenc Puskas and Johan Cruyff both played, with distinction, at the World Cup but never claimed the ultimate prize. Both men were defeated finalists of course, while Messi has so far never progressed further than the quarter-finals. Yet in a way their failures remain more famous than the successes of their conquerors. The teams of Hungary in 1954 and the Netherlands in 1974 are remembered while the West German sides who triumphed at their expense are rarely counted among the sport's true greats.
More fundamentally does the World Cup still represent the pinnacle of footballing greatness? Certainly it remains the most special prize, but that owes as much to the scarcity of opportunity and the format as much as it does to the quality of football. Alex Ferguson famously suggested that the Champions League had usurped the World Cup as the home for the game’s finest players. This year’s edition will be lacking the likes of Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic; hostages to the countries of their birth rather than their own unique talents.
Moreover the compact nature of the finals means that luck becomes a major factor. With doubts over the participation of Radamel Falcao and Luis Suarez hanging over Colombia and Uruguay, the timing and significance of injuries are likely to play a significant part in judging anyone on their World Cup efforts. Pele missed almost the duration of the 1962 tournament through a thigh injury while in 1966 Portugal’s ability to impede the man known as “O Rei” helped to bring the reigning champions’ defence of their title to a premature end. Similarly Maradona played throughout the 1990 tournament under the effects of painkillers and injections thanks to an ankle issue which seriously impeded his influence.
The influence of luck or good fortune though extends far beyond the realms of injuries. Almost every champion in World Cup history has profited from one moment or other that has smoothed their path to glory. Maradona's "Hand of God" might stand out as the most famous, but England's controversial third goal in 1966 and the penalty shoot-out wins of Brazil in 1994 and Italy in 2006 both owed much to Lady Luck. The regular rejoinder that "these things even themselves out" might hold some weight over the course of a long league season, but with a maximum of seven matches at the World Cup there just isn't a chance for such optimism.
The two great hurdles for Messi to overcome in his path to be recognised as the greatest of all time are Pele and Maradona, two players with impeccable World Cup credentials. Their achievements on the biggest stage are legendary and for many judges Messi will have to emulate their feats if he is to be crowned as the game's finest practitioner.
Pele began his World Cup career at 17, with a series of bravura performances as Brazil roared to a first global crown in Sweden. Although his participation in 1962 and 1966 was devastated by injury, his return in 1970 after returning to the national team ended in ultimate glory at the most memorable World Cup ever. Furthermore his record of three World Cups looks unlikely to be matched in the foreseeable future.
At this point it looks inconceivable for Messi to equal the achievements of Pele at the World Cup. More than that, the comparison between the two players is almost impossible to make. As has often been thrown at Messi, he is fundamentally a player with a narrower skill set than a number of the greats. Pele was two footed, quick, strong and exceptional in the air for someone of his modest stature. In contrast to modern perceptions (not helped by the regular references to the 1281 goals that he scored), he was far more than just a goal scorer, with a football brain the equal of any rival. He was the complete forward, but that does not in itself mean he was the best.
The differences between the two players in their style, the eras in which they played and the competitions in which they participated, means that Messi will never decisively supplant Pele as the sport's greatest figure. Just as Don Bradman and Babe Ruth will always remain the most fabled figures in their respective sports, so Pele will always be, for a loyal section of observers, the de facto king of football.
That is not to say that Messi cannot be a better, more effective footballer. He has shown time and again an ability to decisively influence the biggest matches, to settle contests against the planet's best teams. What's more, given the nature of the modern Champions League and Barcelona's financial strength, he is likely to have multiple more chances to claim famous victories. But whatever he achieves, Pele's legend will still be there and realistically his crown will never be conclusively wrested from the Brazilian's grasp.
The comparison with Maradona is the one that is in Messi's power to change. It's not just his shared nationality which has invited comparisons with the fabled Diego. Their similarities in style (both overwhelmingly left-footed, with a scampering dribbling habit, a desire to float between the lines) mean that while they weren't clones (Maradona tended to dictate games from deep far more), it is at least a discussion worth having.
Maradona's legend in popular perception is, erroneously, built on two specific feats. The first is his achievement of carrying Argentina "singlehandedly" to the 1986 World Cup. That performance, probably the greatest single individual display in World Cup history, should never be underplayed, but with distance it has grown ever greater.
In truth it was a side built and designed to bring the best out of Maradona, sacrificing players of great ability (Ricardo Bochini, Daniel Bertoni and even Daniel Passarella) to play to his strengths. Furthermore that argument ignores the vital contributions of Jorge Burruchaga and Jorge Valdano, as well as the excellent defensive unit which conceded just three goals in their six games en route to the final. Before that match Franz Beckenbauer had claimed Argentina were a team without a weakness; likely bluster from an opposition manager but the myth that this was a tournament won by Maradona alone is one which has been created by modern minds.
Meanwhile the other great achievement was his success in claiming two Scudetti with Napoli at a time when Serie A was the most competitive league in the world. The significance of the feat tends to rise and fall inversely with the current performance of Napoli, veering from unthinkable to simply remarkable. Undoubtedly it was a sensational achievement but Hellas Verona, an even more modest club than the Neapolitans, had themselves won the title only two years earlier. The closed shop dominance of the traditionally big clubs was rising but it was yet to establish the stranglehold that it has today, while Napoli had demonstrated their ambition by signing Maradona for a world record fee from Barcelona and then surrounding him with the likes of Alemao and Careca by the time the second title was won.
Messi's club career already stands as the equal (or likely superior) of Maradona's, his peerless consistency reflected in the displays offered in the Champions League as well as domestically. The 2014 World Cup offers a terrific chance to put his international standing on equal footing. Like in 1986 Argentina enter the tournament as second favourites (behind Brazil) with a favourable draw and location facing them. Few can expect Messi to top the performance of Maradona but, given the brilliance displayed previously against opposition of the highest calibre, it is not beyond him.
Ultimately failure to deliver in these finals will not extinguish any hopes of Messi surpassing his illustrious rivals to stand shoulder to shoulder with Pele. Given his age there is no reason the Argentine shouldn't play in another tournament or two. Yet if he can take Argentina to victory, particularly if he does so in the style he has shown for Barcelona in recent years, his admirers will be queuing up to anoint him as the greatest of the modern era. For that reason, this tournament is likely to prove pivotal but not yet critical to perceptions of the Rosario superstar.