Lionel Messi needs Argentina glory to share Diego Maradona and Pele pantheon

lionel-messi-diego-maradona-pele-best-of-all-time-barca-barcelona

Somewhere in the firmament sits a pantheon that comprises the greatest football gods to have ever graced the face of the earth. When not roaming around on the heavenly pitch, they can be found congregated around celestial tables, gushing about their playing days (tough and principled) and lamenting on the current state of the game (soft and unscrupulous).

The first table, reserved for football’s innermost sanctum, has, for a long while now, seated just two: Pelé and Diego Armando Maradona. 

But a third place at the table was being held for Lionel Messi, who bounced back on the big stage after last year’s World Cup disappointment with an historic domestic season, and, with the path cleared at the Copa América as a result of the banishments of his Barça strike-mates Luis Suárez and Neymar, was fully expected to finally guide his country to a long-awaited major championship.

Of a first table would-be holy trinity, Messi, having already compiled five of the greatest club seasons in history, has unquestionably the most glistening domestic résumé. This is partly due to today’s “Europeanization” of club football: rich European top-flight leagues able to procure the best talent, which creates a European-only standard by which elite club players are now judged on.

Pelé never played professionally in Europe, having spent almost 20 years domestically—in a literal sense—at Santos, before winding up his career at the New York Cosmos in the then-flourishing (and now-defunct) North American Soccer League. 

This would never happen today: Neymar, tracing Pelé’s footsteps for both club (Santos) and country (number 10), played just four seasons in his homeland before setting off for Europe at 21. Maradona, who waddled along in the era after Pelé, spent only 12 of his 22 professional seasons in Europe. It is highly likely that la Pulga, who will begin his 13th campaign next month, will toil his entire professional career, as a foreigner, on European soil.


But what has kept La Masia graduate Messi from joining Pelé and Maradona at the first table is the international portfolio. As a 17-year-old wunderkind at the 1958 World Cup, Pelé tallied the lone goal in the quarterfinal, a hat-trick in the semifinal, and two more goals in the final. To be sure, Brazil had an all-conquering team: more than half of its starters made the 11-man World Cup all-star squad (including fellow all-time great Garrincha); and indeed, Brazil went on to capture the 1962 Cup without an injured Pelé for the latter two-thirds of the tournament. 

But shining on the biggest stage as a teenage prodigy sure leaves an everlasting impression. Two other World Cups—even if one was mostly ravaged by injury—also add to that ever-glowing legacy.

Maradona partook in four World Cups, with his apotheosis coming in 1986, when he carried Argentina to the trophy by scoring two of the most memorable goals in football history—the “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century”—in the quarterfinal, adding two more in the semifinal and providing the winning assist in the final. 

Unlike the embarrassment of riches that Brazil exhibited in Pelé’s era, Maradona was the lone Argentinean player to make the 1986 World Cup all-star team: Nobody before or since has been more instrumental in securing the World Cup for his team. And with a likewise mediocre side, Maradona lugged Argentina to the final at the next World Cup, demonstrating that his 1986 run was no fluke.

lionel-messi-diego-maradona-pele-best-of-all-time-barca-barcelona

Last year’s World Cup and, to an extent, this year’s Copa América, were Messi’s acid tests for whether he ascends to the first table. And after the first three weeks of the Cup, he was on track to pass with flying colors, as he single-handedly dragged his team—à la Maradona in 1986—through the group stages, and played a major part in Argentina’s first two knockout victories. But alas, in the two biggest matches of his career, the semifinal and the final of the World Cup, Messi, unlike his would-be peers at the first table, was far from his scintillating best and failed to haul his team across the finishing line.

Fast forward 12 months, and the same sequence unfolded at the Copa America. Reverting to his brilliant best in shepherding Barcelona to an unprecedented second treble after (by his lofty standards) two sub-par campaigns, Messi sought the Copa as the capstone to one of the finest football seasons in history—as well as to his “first table” credentials. But after blazing Argentina’s trail to the final—without even having to net a single goal from open play—his influence dipped noticeably in his team’s final loss to hosts Chile.

Thus, Messi’s provisional place at the table of immortals, which seemed assured on the eves of the Cup and the Copa finals, have both been subsequently recalled—much like Zinédine Zidane’s following the 2006 World Cup final. 

Undoubtedly the finest ever to don a club kit, Messi will now probably have to be content with presiding over (displacing the incumbent Zidane) an illustrious and garrulous bunch at the second table: Zidane, Cruyff, Di Stéfano, Beckenbauer, Platini, Garrincha and Yashin. 

For unless he somehow leads Argentina to international glory—his earliest opportunity won’t come until the World Cup in 2018, when he will be an autumnal 31—and disabuse us of the accruing notion that the greatest player on the planet is more a product of the great Barcelona system, rather than the other way around, then that first table, reserved exclusively for those who immaculately answered the bell when destiny came calling, will be eternally off limits.

Published by Harry Hong, columnist for Barcablog.com.

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