Appreciating Lionel Messi's greatness ahead of last tilt at World Cup glory
LAST November, football journalist Jonathan Wilson wrote a thought-provoking article for World Soccer magazine entitled: ‘Is Messi’s genius part of Argentina’s problem?’
Argentina, as they always seem to do, struggle to match the sum of their parts on the world stage.
How can a team like Argentina struggle with a genius like Messi in it?
Probably dating back to the 2010 World Cup finals, Argentina’s ills have been invariably blamed on Messi.
The inconvenient truth, the Messi sceptics argue, is that he's been cocooned by great players in every position at Barcelona.
He couldn’t carry a team in the same way Diego Maradona managed to do in 1986. That Maradona had more personality, more innate leadership skills than Messi.
But just as Argentina were on the verge of failing to qualify for this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia back in October, they needed to win in Ecuador.
Argentina won 3-1. Messi scored a hat-trick. Ecuador opened the scoring after 37 seconds before Messi responded.
When the pressure was turned up, Messi rose to the occasion.
The sceptics disappeared like summer rain. At least until the next Argentine implosion.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s musings on the 'Messi effect' made for interesting reading.
While posing the question that Messi had a “stifling effect” on some team-mates, his emphatic conclusion was that Argentina’s problems weren’t the little man’s problems.
Wilson shone a light on his team-mates that feel inhibited by the great man's presence.
“To be clear, Wilson writes, “Argentina’s problems are not Messi’s fault but, as Paulo Dybala had noted before the draw against Peru [World Cup Qualifier], playing with a genius can be difficult.
“The temptation,” he added, “is always to give them the ball to get out of the way, worried that you might be obstructing brilliance.”
It’s true players have to adapt – and sometimes, to put it crudely, move out of the way – in order to facilitate Messi.
For his managers such as Pep Guardiola, the late Tito Vilanova, Luis Enrique and current incumbent Ernesto Valverde, the idea of building almost everything around Messi was worth it.
After Messi had scored a wonderful goal against Real Zaragoza, the-then Barcelona coach Guardiola turned to a fan and said: “If it wasn’t for Messi, I’d be coaching in the Third Division.”
Perhaps an exaggeration of his own contribution to the glorious revolution he initiated at Camp Nou in 2008, but the importance of Messi could not be over-stated.
Many great players have struggled to fit into the Messi-driven template.
Barcelona’s signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was met with much fanfare – but the Swede wasn’t prepared to play second fiddle to the little Argentine.
It reached the stage in Ibrahimovic’s brief stay at Barca where he was blocking the central space that Messi would run into and mine a large chunk of his goals.
Playing a target man like Ibrahimovic never made a lot of sense at Barcelona.
The big Swede left in a huff in 2011, accusing Guardiola of immaturity and building everything around Messi.
The La Liga and Champions League titles kept rolling in and Ibrahimovic’s criticism was lost in the din.
When Thierry Henry joined from Arsenal he rarely traversed Messi’s flight paths towards the opposition goal.
He knew better. He understood Barcelona’s hierarchy.
In any case, the Frenchman was better deployed on the left flank – a comfortable distance away from Messi who burrowed his way along the opposite wing and inside right channel.
David Villa was another top class striker who had to tweak his play to survive in the higher altitude of the Catalan capital.
While Neymar and Messi complemented one another in the Barcelona attack, the Brazilian international star played his best football for the club when the Argentine was sidelined with a knee injury at the start of the 2015/16 season.
Neymar, though, couldn’t countenance not being the undisputed star of the team and moved on to PSG to acquire that status.
Messi will turn 31 during this summer’s World Cup finals.
It is his last realistic hope of claiming the title that has so far eluded him and Argentina.
But, whether he can drag his country over the line in Russia should not take the shine off his achievements. He doesn't need a World Cup winner's medal for validation.
It’s reached the stage where we seem to take his genius for granted.
There has never been a player in the game who has been consistently excellent.
Week after week, game after game, dribble after dribble, goal after goal, pass after pass, his performances rarely dip below eight-out-of-10.
Last week, he thrilled the Camp Nou with another two pieces of brilliance against Girona.
Perhaps it’s the hectic pace of modern life and the bombardment of sport on our television screens that make us slightly immune to greatness.
Michael Walker of The Irish Times summed it up best when he said Messi creates a kind of “helpless happiness” in all of us.
After tearing Juventus apart in the Champions League group stages, he wrote: “Modern football is one long racket, a constant noise, usually deafening, often discordant. Messi is the whisper of history heard above it.”
It’s true Messi had an incredible support cast in the form of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Carles Puyol during the Guardiola days.
The current cast in Barcelona is no-where near as illustrious, and yet Messi continues to lead the club to more titles.
He made his first team debut in 2004. After all these years, his star soars still.
We should appreciate this kind of greatness when it visits us because we’ll miss it when it’s gone…