2018 World Cup Player Profile – Lionel Messi

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There’s a growing consensus that Lionel Messi is the greatest talent the game has seen, that his stunning performances with, especially, Barcelona have exceeded what even Pelé and Diego Maradona achieved during their legendary careers.

There’s something Pelé and Maradona possess that Messi does not, and it’s what the argument for and against pivots upon. Pelé won three World Cups with Brazil, playing the pivotal role in the 1958 and 1970 victories. Maradona was part of two titlists, carrying Argentina on his back to the 1986 triumph.

Messi led the Argentines to the World Cup final four years ago but missed out on the trophy after Mario Götze’s overtime strike lifted Germany to a 1-0 win. If his legacy demands the greatest trophy in sport, this might be his last chance.

Messi turns 31 during the group stage in Russia, and although he’s committed to playing on with the Albiceleste, they’re an aging side, and there’s not as much coming through the pipeline these days. They have a chance if the bigger guns — Germany and Brazil and France and Spain — falter on the path. They have a chance if Messi takes command.

It’s certainly within his capabilities, more so than with any other player, including his longtime professional rival Cristiano Ronaldo. As Messi goes, so goes Argentina, and that’s an equation containing positives and negatives.

Messi possesses a unique set of tools — extraordinary touch, balance, agility and quickness, an unerring sense of space and the ability to navigate the tightest of confines, otherworldly vision, and a knack for creating opportunities for himself and his teammates. And he scores and scores and scores, some 47 goals this year to lead Europe, 552 in 14 seasons at Barcelona (510 of them in the past decade), and a record 61 for Argentina.

He’s soccer’s premier highlight reel, full of mazey runs, dizzying twists and turns, a there-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality with the ball at his feet. The man is a wizard, and he’s been rewarded with nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey crowns — he led Barcelona to the “double” this season — four UEFA Champions League championships and four triumphs at the FIFA Club World Cup. He’s won five Ballon d’Ors, as the world’s top player and will be in the running again this year.

He’s done all of that in Spain, where he moved as he hit his teens to join Barcelona’s revered La Masia youth academy. The Catalans built their success around the Messi-Xavi-Andres Iniesta fulcrum in midfield, getting the most from all three to produce some of the finest soccer the world has seen. Messi hasn’t always looked so comfortable with Argentina, which has too often struggled to find the best way to utilize his talent and the appropriate system to build around him.

This was apparent in qualifying for Russia, in which defensive liabilities nearly kept the Argentines from the World Cup. They got through on the final day of the South American tournament, thanks to Messi’s hat trick to beat Ecuador.

The expectations he shoulders are immense, and even when he’s performed remarkably — such as the 2010 World Cup, where he failed to score but made FIFA’s tournament XI — he’s faced heavy criticism at home, where Maradona is the reigning icon and Messi just a talented interloper. He’s better appreciated abroad than in Argentina. His failure to win a trophy with the Albiceleste, not counting a U-20 World Cup victory in 2005 or the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, is a sore point with his countrymen.

He came far closer in Brazil four years ago than expected, and he won the Golden Ball, as tournament MVP, for guiding Argentina into the final. Now he’s looking to take a further step, and there’s good attacking talent to work with, such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala. If manager Jorge Sampaoli can craft an organized defense behind him, Messi could take Argentina all the way.