His talent is undeniable, and he will be remembered as one of the best ever. But right now there’s one glaring void on his résumé.
Lionel Messi is coming to America in June on a mission to finally lift a senior-level trophy with Argentina in this year’s Copa America Centenario, a special edition of the tournament that will take place in the United States in celebration of 100 years since the first Copa America.
As decorated as Messi is at the club level with Barcelona — eight La Liga titles, four Copa del Rey wins and four UEFA Champions League trophies — the 28-year-old thus far has been unable to end Argentina’s drought in major tournaments, which dates back to 1993, the last time it won the Copa America.
Two summers ago in Brazil, Messi and Argentina fell just short of capturing the World Cup, losing the final in extra time to Germany. Argentina’s last World Cup win came in 1986 when Diego Maradona led them to glory.
It is Maradona that Messi has always been linked with, compatriots both small in stature, left-foot dominant and doing seemingly impossible things with a soccer ball. And until Messi can win a cup representing his country, that remains the one possible knock on his career.
“I think when you do the comparison between him and Maradona, yes, it is relevant and it is fair to talk about,” FOX Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, part of the team broadcasting the Copa America, told the Daily News in a telephone interview. “I don’t think he necessarily needs it to be considered one of the best players ever, but I think he almost needs it to be considered the best player ever, and I think he will be in the conversation for the best player ever.”
Argentina also made it to the final of last year’s Copa America, falling to Chile in penalty kicks. It enters the tournament as the odds-on favorite with other top contender Brazil missing star player Neymar, who will play in the Olympics in his home country.
So despite the tremendous talent surrounding him, the weight of expectations will fall on Messi’s shoulders once again as the man considered the best in the world in a climate where athletes are measured to a great extent based on their ability to help teams win championships.
Dan Marino is still an all-time great despite never winning a Super Bowl. Same goes for Ted Williams and the World Series. But it’s fair to call their careers incomplete, and in world soccer, how you perform for your country is just as important, if not more so in some cases, as you perform for your club.
“Whether it’s Argentina or just people who are curious and interested in Argentina, having those moments where you’re raising a cup and the confetti is coming down, I think it is important to people,” Lalas said. “Now how important it is to Messi, I don’t know. But I think there’s a pressure for the team and I think he probably feels to a certain extent a pressure, but I don’t think it’s oppressive to him because of the type of person he seems to be.”
Regardless of whether or not he ever wins a Copa America or World Cup, people will remember marveling at Messi’s skills. Search Youtube for Lionel Messi and videos with titles featuring phrases such as “A God Amongst Men” and “The King” pop up immediately.
He possesses unfathomable dribbling ability and ball control, regularly making opposing players look foolish. Combined with superb vision, he can put the ball anywhere he wants to with pristine passes. He’s fast, agile and has the acceleration of a Formula One car.
All of that on its own would make him great. That he’s also one of the most prolific goal-scorers ever puts him in another stratosphere. He scored his 500th career goal, club and country combined, on April 17. He has 50 goals for Argentina, six shy of tying Gabriel Batistuta’s all-time Argentinian record.
Messi’s athletic prowess is all the more impressive when you consider he’s only 5-foot-7.
“Messi’s greatness is in his ordinariness,” Lalas says. “And what I mean by that is if you saw Messi walking down the street and you didn’t know anything about soccer, there is not a chance in hell that you would look at him and say ‘That’s one of the greatest athletes on the planet.’”
Every time Messi laces up his boots, he is likely to inspire awe.
“What he is able to do at any given moment on the soccer field is magical,” Lalas says. “It’s beautiful and it stops you in your tracks in that there are very few players in the world who, when the ball comes to their feet, everybody holds their breath and everybody sits up because the potential for something magical to happen exists, and this is one of those players. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been watching the game your entire life or you just started watching, you will see that magic and you will feel that magic, and you will appreciate what happens regardless if it results ultimately in a goal because the beauty of soccer isn’t always the goal. In this particular man, the beauty that exists between the goals is priceless and is evident on a consistent basis.”
It will be evident across this country in June for as long as Argentina remains in the Copa America. If Messi can take “La Albiceleste” to the final at MetLife Stadium on June 26 and win it all, his legend will only grow.