2 Copas del Rey
6 Supercopas de España
3 Champions Leagues
2 UEFA Super Cups
2 FIFA World Cups
1 Olympic Gold Medal
Most Ballon d’Or awards (4)
Most European Golden Shoes (3)
Most goals in a calendar year (91)
Most goals scored in a season (73)
Longest streak of goals scored in league matches (21)
Most CL top scorer awards (4)
Most CL hat-tricks (4)
Most goals in a single CL game (5)
Most goals in CL knock-out phase (31)
Most La Liga hat-tricks in a season (8)
Most La Liga goals in a season (50)
Most clásico goals (21)
Most clásico hat-tricks (2)
Most goals scored in a year for the Argentinian national team (12, shared with Gabriel Batistuta)
Most goals scored for F.C. Barcelona (354)
I could go on listing Lionel Messi’s achievements (thank you, Wikipedia) but you get the point, we are talking about who for many culers is the best player in the history of world football. For others, this debate died out when he ended his first trophyless season since five years ago and had not managed to add to his record-breaking streak of four consecutive Balon d’Ors. For today’s short-term memory suffering public, apparently your place in history is only as good your last match. In 24 hours the possible addition of “World Cup (1)” to the above list, however, can kill the argument forever.
It’s hard to find what to make of Argentina this summer. They looked excellent during the qualifiers, but were it not for the fact that they’re playing the final they would yet have to convince me as one of the favorites for the World Cup. To even just a somewhat critical eye they have failed to impress in encounters with Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland. They look disjointed, and have yet to play a game in which they both attack well and defend well.
The semi-finals played out like some weird game of reverse chicken, with two cars parked on the opposite end of the road whose drivers refused to put their foot on the gas for the best part of 120 minutes. A team featuring who many still consider the best player of the world should not have let a match go to penalties against defenders who had at times looked shaky for their clubs in the lowly Eredivisie last season*. It was a dogged affair in which Argentina were afraid of Robben and Holland were afraid of Messi.
Perhaps due to El Kun bowing out early with injury, Higuain being not nearly as effective as during the last two years in South America and Di Maria playing well below his abilities**, defenses have so far managed to shackle Messi during large parts of the games. The Flea has looked muted, and although he jumped up to decide the first four matches, from the quarter finals onwards he has had little to no direct influence on the proceedings. It’s a testament to Messi’s astonishing skill and ability that even after five relatively subdued performances***, he has made more key passes than any other player in the tournament. His goals during the group phase were a pleasure to behold, as were the run and assist that finished off Switzerland and the mind-bending pass to Ángel Di Maria against Belgium, preceded by a Riquelmesque pause.
However, like his performances for our club this season, this is not the Messi we have enjoyed for so long. He is still capable of the impossible, but we have stopped expecting the impossible every time he receives the ball. He has stopped being irrepressible and at this moment, he is no longer the shoe-in for the best player of the world in the obvious way that he had been during the previous four years. A combination of injuries, fatherhood and the negative climate that has surrounded F.C. Barcelona for some time now seem to have taken its toll. That, and of course, the fact that his sustained level of achievement is already unparalleled in soccer. Nobody has ever been the best player of the world for four consecutive years. It borders on the inhuman and, much like our club’s trophy haul, to expect it to continue forever is not only madness but also extremely unfair.
A whole different kind of madness will take place tonight and whether it will be fair or not remains to be seen. Argentina has made the final of the World Cup for the first time in 24 years and again, it’s their number 10 who is looked upon to bring home the trophy. However, unlike his ex-coach, the Germans Messi will face are the overwhelming favorites to win the tournament. The team has no weaknesses and no injuries, and they have demolished both Portugal and Brazil with devastating score lines. The worthier their opponents, the better they’ve played. They are intelligent, well-coached, physical, technical and speedy. They possess all the virtues and no real flaws. Argentina has to be perfect****, and Messi has to bring it.
The pressure is immense and more than ever before, the eyes of the world will be set on the Argentine playmaker. Many will hope that he fails. Yet many more will want him to win the biggest prize in football. If he does, he will become, without a shred of a doubt… immortal. The best player to ever play the game.
It’s possible that next season he continues his slide at the end of which it would not surprise anyone if Bartomeu sold him. Or not. He could move away from the false 9 position and into midfield. He may yet remain with us for the rest of his career. Barça can win Ligas, Copas and Champions Leagues. Or we could win nothing. But regardless of what will happen with Leo and the club in the years to come, the sheer possibility for a player who grew up in La Masía to become the game’s undisputed G.O.A.T. is something worth rooting for. Tonight, for one night, culers all over the world will be Argentinian. We’ll treat the albiceleste as if it were blaugrana. ¡Visca el Barça! y ¡Viva Argentina!
* Three of the defenders that played against Argentina represent Feyenoord. To give you an idea what that means in terms of world football, Feyenoord got eliminated in their Europa League qualifier by F.C. Kuban Krasnodar. Who? Yes, exactly. The 29-year old leader of the defense, Ron Vlaar, plays for Aston Villa, who ended 15th in the Premier League last season. The left back for 75 minutes of the match? Dirk Kuyt, a 34-year old striker.
** If you’re Sabella, you have to resist the urge to start Di María. History is littered with examples of good forwards playing injured in important matches. They usually do more harm than good. Play Pérez, who had some decent moments in the semis. What you lose in quality, you’ll gain in fitness and attitude.
*** The first half against Nigeria is the exception that keeps it from being six.