Lionel Messi and the meritocracy of football

Whispers regarding Lionel Messi’s Argentina career circulated again this week as news surfaced that Messi was not named in the squad for Argentina’s upcoming friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia. Messi’s international future is said to remain ‘unclear’.

Following Argentina’s defeat in the Round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup, Messi was said to be devastated at another failure to bring home the game’s most prized trophy and is yet to shine light on his intentions regarding international football.

Last October, Argentine coach Jorge Sampioli challenged his squad to match the star quality of Lionel Messi as they prepared for an important World Cup qualifier with Ecuador. Argentina qualified – thanks to a Lionel Messi hat-trick – but not before Juventus forward Paolo Dybala described how difficult it was playing with his fellow Argentine, a player whose mercurial talent has outshone that of practically all teammates since debuting over a decade ago.

Javier Mascherano, Messi’s club and country teammate, has spoken about how he hopes “as his team‑mates [they] can meet his standards”. Should Mascherano and co not wish to win a World Cup for their own benefit? Sampioli would later say that he believed the Argentina squad did not owe Messi the World Cup, before doubling down and stating that all of football owed Messi the World Cup.

Argentina have struggled for success at international level since they last won the World Cup in 1986. They are now a decade removed from their last ‘great’ team and the team that now surrounds Messi lacks the physicality and talent of former eras. Messi is their supreme talent and for this reason they have built their team to suit his needs.

Inter forward Marco Icardi was reportedly axed from the squad due to his incompatibility with Messi. Dybala’s unhappiness in the team stems from the fact that he plays in similar positions to the dominant Messi.

Messi’s career has been epitomised by comparisons with the world’s greatest ever players. Is he better than Ronaldo? Is he better than Maradona? It is the opinion of this writer that Messi is indeed better than both. Messi is the consummate teammate who has immersed himself in the Barcelona system since his debut in 2005.

Ronaldo on the other hand, despite his brilliance, has never been as team focused as Messi. Similarly, Diego Maradona and his World Cup success of 1986 has in recent years cast a shadow over Messi’s international involvements. It is occasions like the victory of Ecuador, a do-or-die clash in which Messi truly dominated that epitomises his commitment and talent in the national team.

Messi’s claim to be the world’s greatest player has plenty of evidence. His goal in the Champions League Final in 2009 against Manchester United, his brace against Manchester City in 2015, his brace against Bayern Munich that same season, his last gasp winner against Real Madrid in April 2017. 2015 was a vintage year for Messi – greatly attributed to his work with nutrient expert Giuiliano Poser – also saw Messi score what many to be his greatest goal, a superb solo effort in the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao in which he beat a number of Bilbao players, showed incredible pace and control, before firing home through a crowded box of players.

It is entirely possibly that Lionel Messi will be the world’s greatest player to never win a World Cup but it shouldn’t be forgotten that many other great players – though not comparing any of these to Messi – have never even played in a World Cup, let alone won the trophy. George Best, George Weah, Alfredo di Stefano never played in a World Cup and it has not affected their legacy in any way.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu recently stated,

I hope that Leo Messi, the best player in history, can win it and make his dream come true.

Bartomeu’s attitude is reflective of the world at large, with fans eager to see Messi complete his personal journey and in a video game-esq, Pokemon style, “catch ‘em all” victory of the world’s biggest trophies and competitions.

But we should ask ourselves – why do we crave to see Messi win every single trophy? Is it not enough for fans to watch the game and marvel at the triumph of the world’s greatest team that year, regardless of who that may be?

The situation with Lionel Messi and Argentina is similar to that of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA. At the recent NBA Playoffs, nobody rated LeBron’s Cavaliers, a team which relied heavily on James’ match winning exploits to win every single game.

The Golden State Warriors on the other hand were a team of scintillating dynamism and shared talents; the Hampton Five of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson, great players in a great team at the perfect time.

Short of a LeBron miracle, clawing his teammates through the midst of Warrior brilliance, the Cavaliers were never favoured yet the fans clamoured for LeBron to produce another Cavalier miracle and complete another personal glory.

Is it not enough for LeBron and Lionel Messi to simply be considered the world’s greatest players? We do watch team sports after all. Nobody will dispute Messi’s claim to be the world’s greatest player, and his reward is that title in itself, not necessarily the World Cup trophy.

Furthermore, Lionel Messi has been greatly rewarded – both financially and through awards – for being such a talented player.

We now live in a society where delayed gratification is a thing of the past and we want everything when we see it, not further down the line. Similarly we live vicariously through Lionel Messi and cannot bear the idea of him not having “the complete set” in terms of footballing triumphs.

It would be worthwhile to remember that football is a team sport and consider ourselves lucky when the greatest team win out. People sympathised with Messi’s Barcelona, the perceived greater team, when they lost to Inter Milan in the 2010 Champions League.

Paul Scholes missed Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League triumph due to suspension. While people yearned for him to finally win a Champions League in 2009 and 2011, Messi’s Barcelona – the superior team on both occasions – ran out winners on both nights.

Football is often the ultimate meritocracy and sadly, despite Messi’s brilliance, the rest of his team do not currently warrant World Cup glory.

Author Details

Aidan Boland
Aidan Boland

Irish Primary School Teacher living in Tipperary with a big interest in sports. Contributor to United We Stand. Main interests include Premier League and Bundesliga along with Golf and NFL (specifically New England Patriots).

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