The lonely figure of Lionel, and his messy critics

As the world’s media hailed the display of French youngster Kylian Mbappe, who displayed his dizzying talent as he scythed through the Argentinian defence multiple times during their Round of 16 encounter, on the losing side was Lionel Messi. The Barcelona and La Albiceleste superstar had cut a forlorn figure on the pitch for a significant time in the tournament, and with this blazing display by the youthful French side, out went one more chance for him to leave an lasting imprint with his national team. Was this Messi’s last chance win a major tournament in Argentina colours?
It isn’t hard to escape this feeling. After all, he’s 31 years old, and this was probably his very last World Cup. It is worth remembering that two years ago, after losing the 2016 Copa America final to Chile on penalties, Messi announced that he was retiring from international football. That game must have been especially painful to “La Pulga Atómica”, as Messi had missed his penalty in the shootout. Speaking after that game, he would say:
“In the dressing room I thought that this is the end for me with the national team, it’s not for me. That’s the way I feel right now, it’s a huge sadness once again and I missed the penalty that was so important…. I tried so hard to be [a] champion with Argentina. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t do it. I think it’s best for everyone, for me and for many people who want it. The choice for me is over, it is a decision. I tried many times [to be a champion] but did not.”
Of course, Messi would renege his decision a couple of months later, and drag Argentina to the World Cup 2018 tournament. The only major international honour that Messi has won with his country is the lightweight Gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. At the international tournaments, his tale has always been full of disappointments. To add to all this, Cristiano Ronaldo won the 2016 Euro with Portugal. Three near-misses in three heartbreaking finals filled with what-if moments — the 2014 World Cup, and the 2015 & 2016 Copa Americas — have got to have hurt Messi.
“Messi’s numbers are unparalleled and I think they’ll remain that way forever, because it’s impossible for a football player to do what Messi has done…. My generation can’t compare him to [Diego] Maradona — that’s for my generation, because of what Maradona did for Argentine soccer. But I think the best player ever played today here in the United States.”That comparison again. Maradona, the other Argentine diminutive maestro with the divine left foot. Maradona, the man who won the World Cup for Argentina and brought glory to the nation on the global stage. The question still remains — does Lionel Messi really need a major tournament with Argentina to be labelled as an all-time great?
Needless to say, this is head and shoulders above everyone else in the last few footballing generations, with the exception of his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi exemplifies excellence, consistency and longevity rolled into one spectacular individual. In contrast, his illustrious Argentine predecessor Maradona was at his peak for about 5-6 years.
Throughout the history of the game, some other players who boasted such Messi-esque goal returns over such a long period in similar leagues are Gerd Muller, Eusebio, Pele and Ferenc Puskas; this list alone is enough to put his feats into perspective. Then there is a raft of individual and team competitive honours that Messi has won — the multiple Spanish and Champions leagues, the sextuple, the European golden shoe and the FIFA Ballon d’Or/World player of the year awards (more on this shortly), among others.
It must be also remembered that football is a team sport. Of course, on a particular day a spectacular one-man show can overcome a superior team, but in order to experience consistent success, a player needs to be part of a good team. A good showing in the group stages can be completely undone by a cagey match against a plucky underdog, throwing out the best-laid plans of a pre-tournament favourite.