Moment of reckoning

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: Jun 15 2014, 05:56am hrs
How Lionel Messi performs in Brazil will eventually determine whether the Argentine star can upstage Pele and Maradona to become the greatest ever

Make no mistake, Lionel Messi has nothing left to prove to anyone. His consistency and countless trophies for Barcelona and, more importantly, four Ballon dOrs in a row from 2009-10 to 2012-13 have put him in the highest echelons of football legends. But World Cup is the Holy Grail and how Messi performs in Brazil will eventually determine whether he can upstage Pele and Diego Maradona to become the greatest ever.

This is Messis third World Cup. He went to Germany in 2006 as an 18-year-old, but was not used at all by then Argentina coach Jose Pekerman. In South Africa, in 2010, Messi was Maradonas number one hitman, but ended the tournament without a goal to his name. As Maradona hugged him after a crushing defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals, tears flowed.

Messi is now 26 years old and in the prime of his career, a moderate season with Barcelona notwithstanding. He now wears the captains armband. Can he lead the team to World Cup glory This is his challenge.

Messi is an Argentine by birth, but Catalan by residence. He has made Barcelona his home ever since he moved away from Rosario as a 12-year-old. Also, all his success so far has come at club level. Maybe this is a reason why hes not adored like Maradona, or even Carlos Tevez, in his own country. In fact, Messi has been carrying the curse of not winning anything for Argentina for close to half a decade now. But this is an unfair criticism towards an artist who makes football feel like music with the lightness of touch. Argentina fans must appreciate the fact that despite achieving everything at Barcelona, Messi is always willing to play for his country. He rarely misses a game for Argentina and had even dropped in at Kolkata once to play an international friendly against Venezuela. Money has never been a strength for Argentine Football Association (AFA); while at Nou Camp, Messis annual salary is $50 million. Still, he cares for his country and will leave no stone unturned to win the World Cup.

The lead-up to Brazil was not perfect for Messi. He copped flak for Barcelonas first trophyless season in six years. Indeed, he was unsuccessful by his standards, but even in a below-par season, he scored 36 goals in La Liga and the Champions League. He also played some fabulous football in the World Cup qualifiers as Argentina finished atop the South American zone with 35 points from 16 matches. Messi was the second-highest scorer behind Uruguays Luis Suarez with 11 goals. Still, fans were not happy and former Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino had an explanation: Messi has raised the bar so high that when he doesnt score, its suddenly a problem, said Martino, who resigned after Barcelonas final La Liga game this year.

This World Cup presents the little champion with an opportunity to regain his mojo. This also offers him a chance to get out of Maradonas shadow. His illustrious predecessor willed Argentina to World Cup title 28 years ago. Can Messi emulate him

One things for certain that unlike Maradona, Messi will never resort to trickery for success. Yes, Maradona ruled the 1986 World Cup. His wonder goal against England made him a legend. But that piece of artistry was preceded by deceptionremember the Hand of God incident. Four years previously in Spain, he was shown the red card for a gross tackle on Brazils Joao Batista. It was one of the most shocking fouls in World Cup history. And in 1994, in the United States, Maradona was banished from the World Cup for failing a drug test. The diminutive Argentine was a great player in his own right, but he also revelled in simulation. He fell out with his teammates and rivals in equal measure as well.

Daniel Passarella and Mario Kempes never saw eye-to-eye with Maradona. Ossie Ardiles disliked his off-the-field antics. In Italy, where he played for Napoli in Serie A, Maradona soon became a hate figure in San Siro and Stadio delle AlpiAC Milan and Juventus home grounds, respectively.

Messi, on the contrary, is perhaps the most loveable man on planet footballhugely respected both by colleagues and opponents. It was our choice who wears the captains armband and we chose Messi. Hopefully, he has a great World Cup. Hes a fantastic player and, as a person, a great friend and a very good teammate. Hes a great captain, Angel Di Maria was quoted as saying by Spanish paper AS.

When play comes down (to) one side of the pitch, hes out of this world. To stop Messi in a one-on-one, you can only do it with a rifle in your hand. Despite his recent injuries, hes a player whos going to give defenders a lot of work during the World Cup, Brazils Thiago Silva told ESPN FC.

Argentina are one of the favourites to win the World Cup. A team that boasts of players of the quality of Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano, Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Messi is expected to go the distance. The skipper obviously is the jewel in the crown and if he lights up the show, Argentinas cup will runneth over with joy. The Albiceleste havent won the World Cup for close to three decades now and this appears to be their best chance.

Is he feeling the nerves as the moment of reckoning approaches Messi vomited during the warm-up fixture against Slovenia, and Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella attributed it to anxiety. But he has done this many times before. In fact, he has a tendency of throwing up on the pitch, but that never affected his performance.

This, however, is a huge occasion and it would be impossible even for the best player in the world not to feel the pressure. Still, it would be disrespectful to Messis genius to judge him on the basis of his performance in this World Cup. Let him enjoy. Rest assured, he will provide many magical moments to savour.