Soccer

Lionel Messi the greatest with or without a World Cup victory

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

Argentina's Lionel Messi hasn't won a World Cup at four attempts
Argentina's Lionel Messi hasn't won a World Cup at four attempts

AND just like that Lionel Messi turned 35. For almost two decades, he’s relentlessly and successfully pursued excellence and is now firmly in the twilight of a truly awesome playing career.

It’s hard to imagine football without the little Argentine, soon to disappear from our television screens, no longer doing ridiculous things with a ball, creating unforgettable moments and bringing joy to everyone.

Messi is art itself, the kind of which the world will probably never see again.

In exactly 25 days, he will take to the field in Lusail, Qatar to face Saudi Arabia and launch Argentina’s pursuit of the World Cup.

When Messi left crisis-torn Barcelona for Paris Saint Germain in the summer of 2021, it felt like the end of his greatness.

It took him and PSG a while to acclimatize to one another and over a year later, on the cusp of his fifth World Cup finals appearance, Messi’s performances couldn’t be much better – great news for PSG in their elusive pursuit of a Champions League title but particularly Argentina who haven’t won the World Cup since Diego Maradona inspired them to victory in Mexico 1986.

The French League has always been the poor cousin in European domestic football. The Spanish La Liga, the English Premiership and even the Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga have greater popularity than the French Ligue 1.

It seemed no matter how much star dust, or indeed the Qatar Sports Investment millions, were sprinkled on the Paris club, the project still lacked something.

Even with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, PSG still didn't convince. This season more so than last, Messi is that key ingredient.

Can this be the year PSG become Champions League winners? They have marquee quality in the final third; do they have enough structure behind Messi, Neymar and Mbappé?

So far this season, that irresistible trio are pulling off their own theatrical impersonation of the Harlem Globetrotters. Some of the inter-play between them has been outrageous in recent weeks.

Last weekend, away to Ajaccio, Messi and Mbappé combined on the edge of the opposition’s 18-yard box with sublime one-touch play for the little Argentine to round the ‘keeper and walk the ball into the net.

It was straight out of FIFA PlayStation, just like it was in their 7-2 mauling of Champions’ League group opponents Maccabi Haifa on Tuesday night, with Messi scoring two incredible and very different goals, but both works of art.

Just when you think his star is flickering slightly, Messi posts another wonderful reminder of his boundless talent.

Amid the mountain of PlayStation moments we scroll through on social media, there was one piece of footage that summed up his evolution.

No longer perpetual motion, as in the days of his youth, Messi has become a player of devastating moments.

In this celebrated piece of footage, it shows Messi close up, walking around the pitch, extremely alert, constantly surveying every angle of the pitch, where the space is, where his team-mates are and how he can affect the play.

It was like watching a piece of wildlife than a footballer during a game.

When Maradona lost his explosive pace, he relied on his brainpower and general football intelligence to remain a world footballing force. His passing and appreciation of space was the kind that simply couldn’t be coached.

In his later years, post-Italia ’90, Maradona became more of a creator of chances rather than goal-scorer.

Messi, by contrast, is a creator and a taker of chances. Crucially, he still has an explosion of pace that is reserved for in and around the opposition’s penalty area.

In many ways, Messi’s evolution can be viewed through the prism of the World Cup finals he’s participated in. Argentina arrived at the 2006 finals in Germany with one of the most talented squads in recent times.

Hernan Crespo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Roberto Ayala, arguably the best central defender the Latin nation had produced since the great Daniel Passerella, and the young, bewildering class of Messi.

Argentina’s problem, as it has often been, was in the dug-out. Jose Pekerman was a desperately conservative coach.

Even though Messi had come off the bench and starred in some games, Pekerman didn't introduce him during Argentina’s ill-fated quarter-final defeat to hosts Germany.

At the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, Messi was Argentina’s best player in every game.

They had an embarrassment of attacking riches but carried too many defensive slouches and were duly beaten out the gate by Germany, again at the quarter-final stages.

And with the erratic Maradona in the dug-out, Argentina never truly threatened to go all the way in South Africa.

Although they went closest at the 2014 finals in Brazil, losing to the Germans again in a compelling decider, Messi wasn’t in the best physical shape but still picked up player of the tournament.

At the last World Cup in Russia, Argentina rallied after a terrible start but were never realistic contenders. Another World Cup had eluded Messi.

Argentina proceeded to lose back-to-back Copa America finals in 2015 and '16, both to Chile, with much of the blame being heaped on Messi’s shoulders

Redemption on the international stage, however, came in the guise of eventually winning the COVID-hit Copa America last year, beating hosts Brazil in the final.

Argentina approach next month’s World Cup finals, Messi’s last hurrah, as arguably second favourites behind Brazil.

With a series of bad managerial appointments over the years, the Argentine FA appear to have stumbled across the right man in the youthful Lionel Scaloni, once a defender for the national team.

Like the ’86 squad, Argentina look very solid and it appears they have the balance between defence and attack right for Messi to flourish.

But whether or not there is a fairytale ending to his international career in Qatar shouldn’t crudely decide his place among the pantheon of greats.

For two decades, Messi has been an untouchable performer, an artist, the kind of genius the game has never seen before and is unlikely to see again.

He is sheer joy on a football pitch and we should savour every moment he creates at next month’s World Cup finals.