I'll set my stall out from the off – Lionel Messi is the greatest player I've ever seen and my 'GOAT'. Beyond video clips and an odd full length match, I haven't seen much from the likes of Pele, Maradona, Cryuff, or the recently departed Alfredo Di Stefano; and so I'm not in a position to make a detailed and compelling argument for Messi > them without making an awful lot of assumptions.
But regardless, for the purposes of Messi's place in history, I believe what those storied names have achieved is increasingly an irrelevance, something which has become apparent as Messi and Argentina prepare for Sunday's World Cup final. Suddenly, mere victory will not be enough. Messi has to own it, define it, almost win it all by himself...or really the achievement isn't so impressive. This is the narrative which has begun to creep onto my Twitter timeline and further beyond, even into my weekly dose of Football Weekly. Messi isn't trying to catch up and then supercede Pele or Maradona; he's having to leap through hoops which are forever shrinking.
Argentina winning the WC with Messi as top scorer is no longer enough, though I bet it would have been three weeks ago. Now Messi has to win the WC, in spite of his team-mates, not because of them, or alongside them, or even leading them (as he has). It has to be some kind of superhuman effort...because otherwise, so what? That is what we're beginning to hear and it's just a little bit ridiculous. Messi has had a good tournament so far. He's scored four goals - three of them stunning - and provided a match winning assist. Only two goals have been scored by Argentina at this World Cup without Messi's direct involvement. There/s a whole ream of other stats which display Messi's influence and importance too. But I really don't think anything other than perhaps a hat-trick in the final will be enough to quell the doubters.
Thankfully for him, I doubt Messi cares, so long as he can bring World Cup glory back to Argentina. It's been well documented that Argentinians haven't quite taken to Messi over the years for various reasons. It really hasn't felt like that at this World Cup, however, as their fans serenade him and taunt their Brazillian hosts with Messi's name very much up there alongside Maradona's. And last night when Argentina clinched their place in the final, after a subdued game, there was a rare outpouring of emotion from Messi who was visibly moved and almost overwhelmed by the moment, a slightly unnerving sight considering his usual steely eyed demeanour.
If Argentina are to overcome Germany on Sunday evening, it will have to be a team effort. Germany's stellar side will make sure of that as they'll have enough to make life difficult for Messi, and to pose questions of their own to the Argentine backline. A backline which, by the way, has fared far better than anybody expected it to ahead of the tournament. Much of that is down to the direction of Javier Mascherano, who has shown that he is as good a defensive midfielder as you can find these days, despite Barcelona's insistence on using him as a centre-back. Whilst Messi continues to be Argentina's heartbeat, Macherano provides the oxygen, providing leadership by example and by word. But as much as he barks and bellows, it's Messi's mere presence which keeps Argentina's belief alive. All Messi needs to get the pulse racing now is somebody to create a distraction and the slightest of spaces for him in which to work. It will be up to Argentina's forward players to do that, be it Higuain, Aguero or a returning Angel Di Maria. Nobody can dance past a solid defensive wall all on their own, but give Messi just the sense of an appearing crack, and he will trickle through and bust it down. It's remarkable to see, and it's enough for me, yet for some, Messi may never be able to do enough.