He'd be greater with a World Cup

Unlike his stint with Barcelona, Lionel Messi's World Cup career so far has been quite abysmal with two quarterfinal exits — though he hardly had any part to play in the 2006 edition in Germany under Jose Peckerman — and just one goal to his name. Much lesser mortals have fared better in the quadrennial event, writes Ayon Sengupta.

There are leaders of men, there are individuals of the greatest ability, but few can aspire to go a step further and put on the cloak of invincibility, don the garb of a legend. For one to become a legend, he needs to surpass himself, break every myth and accomplish what is larger than life. But today, legend is a much misused term, used synonymously with myth, tall-tale and history.

The deeds of a legend should capture our imagination. Pretenders have been many, but actual achievers only a handful.

That the Barcelona ace, Lionel Messi, is the best player in the world now is indisputable. The Argentine has been way ahead of his rivals for at least a good three years, a fact that is now taken for granted.

Last season, his closest adversary, Cristiano Ronaldo, scored the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final, handing Real Madrid its first major trophy in three years. Ronaldo emerged the top scorer in Spain's domestic competitions for which he won the Pichichi Award. Yet he came nowhere close to challenging Messi for the Ballon d'Or.

None can come close to matching Messi, especially when he is at his best. “I don't even want to compare Messi to anyone else. It just isn't fair on them,” says Messi's Barcelona team-mate Xavi.

The Argentine scored 31 goals in the league last season, logging a total of 53 in 55 competitive games. This season, he has already notched up 19 goals in 18 matches. Messi's detractors should have realised by now that he has excelled not only in the Spanish League but also in a much tougher competition, the UEFA Champions League, where he scored a record 12 goals in the last edition, including two in the semifinals and one in the final.

However, with Messi it's just not about goals. He has been the top scorer in Europe's elite club competition for the last three years and is leading the list this season. His habit of scoring at crucial times simply refuses to die. The strikes in two Champions League finals, two World Club Cup Championship finals and several goals in El Clasico lend credence to his legendary status.

To top it all, Messi had 19 assists to his name in La Liga last season. Pointless to note, that too was the best of the lot. With 10 assists — across all competitions — so far this season, he looks more lethal and involved, dropping deeper, controlling the game and, more often than not, also driving the final nail.

Messi has raised his game to a different level, making it an art of the finest quality. ‘The Flea' is indeed a joy to behold. However, his countrymen will argue that Messi hasn't guided Argentina to World Cup glory; therefore his achievement as a footballer is incomplete and his legendary status not yet sealed.

At Barcelona, the diminutive false No. 9, or the hidden striker, is fortunate to be playing alongside one of the greatest midfield ensemble in the history of the game. Unfortunately, Argentina has no Xavi, Iniesta or Sergio Busquets. Their telepathy and unique intelligence — a result of training and playing together for a good part of the last decade — gives Messi the space and opportunity to wreak havoc in the opposing rank when playing for Barcelona. But turning out for Argentina recently in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, Messi had Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago, Ricardo Alvarez and Javier Pastore for company. Not even the biggest of La Albiceleste fans will consider them close to the three Barcelona wizards or even call them near world-class.

Former Argentine international Juan Roman Riquelme made a controversial statement recently that Messi should have played for Spain. The 24-year-old, too, would be excused for feeling the same way. With his style, approach and outlook, he would fit perfectly into the current Spanish national side, the winner of the European Cup and the World Cup. At least then, his international journey would have gone the way of his club career.

At Barcelona, Messi has dominated club football in a manner not seen since the heady days of another Argentine legend, Alfredo di Stefano, who played for Real in the 1950s. There's hardly anything left for Messi to achieve in club football, but his legendary status will gain more weight only if he inspires Argentina to World Cup glory.

His World Cup career so far has been quite abysmal with two quarterfinal exits — though he hardly had any part to play in the 2006 edition in Germany under Jose Peckerman — and just one goal to his name. Much lesser mortals have fared better in the quadrennial event.

Even in Copa America, Messi is yet to win the title, his best being runner-up finish in 2007. His only moment of triumph with Argentina was at the 2008 Olympics and the 2005 FIFA under-20 World Cup. Di Stefano had at least won the South American crown in 1947 before moving on to play for Colombia and then Spain.

Diego Maradona, the legend to whom Messi is often compared, rose to his position of pre-eminence only after leading a rag-tag Argentine team to World Cup victory in 1986. Maradona was a leader of men, a scorer and a passer of incomparable genius. He was also a genuine team player.

Before Maradona there was Pele, whose stirring achievement of three World Cup victories with Brazil is a feat that will stand for ages. It defined the Brazilian's genius and made him the household name that he is today.

That Messi is spoken in the same breath as Pele and Maradona is in itself an acknowledgment of his supernatural skills. But to be bracketed with these legends what Messi needs is World Cup success.

“Messi will always be great with or without (winning) a World Cup. But the World Cup, it's something special,” another three-time Ballon d'Or winner Michel Platini says. “When you see Maradona, you see what he has done in '86. At the World Cup he was very strong. To score in a World Cup is an important matter. Messi is a pearl. He is the best player but he needs to have the best team. At Barcelona, he has the best team. I hope he has the best team with Argentina,” he adds.

Messi is a player who gives shape to his teams. But without the support of say a Xavi or Iniesta, he isn't very productive. The reverse too is as obvious — without Messi, Barcelona will not be the same.

Messi not only scores all the time but also creates openings for his team-mates to pass and score goals themselves. As the cliché goes, ‘ Messi just makes everybody else look better'.

The history of football is replete with stories of fallen heroes and players falling prey to off-field distractions. “I hope he doesn't get fed up, and I hope he will continue being at ease and being at the club with the players around him,” says Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. “When he doesn't play well, it's because something is wrong with his environment, with his surroundings.”

Thankfully for Guardiola and Barcelona, he has enjoyed all the comforts at the club level. The same, though, can't be said of his stint with the national team. Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella made him captain after taking charge and is trying to build the team around him. Success is yet to be achieved, but all eyes are on the World Cup final in Rio de Janerio in 2014.