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Why Lionel Messi is the greatest of all time as he aims to emulate Diego Maradona

Argentinian superstar has already built a towering legacy, but winning the ultimate prize would put him on the same pedestal as Pele and Maradona

Argentina legend Lionel Messi. Photo: AP© AP

Jamie CarragherTelegraph.co.uk

Lionel Messi is one win away from settling the most enduring argument in football. If he lifts the World Cup for Argentina, he will cement his status as the greatest player of all time.

The football romantic in me imagines a fitting climax in Qatar where Messi achieves his lifetime ambition with another technical masterclass only to announce his imminent retirement, the curtain falling with the everlasting image of him holding our sport’s most precious trophy.

Maybe this sounds too sentimental, a dramatic step too far given how much Messi loves the game and the fact his body has clearly not given up on him yet. But how appropriate would it be if his obsessive pursuit of the World Cup – in some people’s eyes the only honour separating him from fellow immortals like Pele and Diego Maradona – ended in the ultimate glory at this last, desperate attempt? In footballing terms, it really would be the greatest story ever told.

The build-up to tomorrow’s final is focused on Messi versus Kylian Mbappe – the master versus the apprentice – as the French striker continues his own bid to enhance his legend with a potential second World Cup win.

With respect, Messi is not competing with Mbappe to solidify his place among the footballing gods. He is already there. Since the tournament kicked off, Messi has been playing to ensure his extraordinary legacy equals the only two names worthy of comparison.

I am desperate for Messi to win because he belongs on the same pedestal as Pele and Maradona. A World Cup winner’s medal removes the only shred of doubt about his place. For me, it would mean going beyond all others.

Those still devoted to Pele and Maradona will always insist that it is impossible and the duo will never be overtaken. I am prepared to concede that we generally favour our own generation – those we have had the pleasure to see live or, in my case, the privilege to play against – when acclaiming who is the best.

There are, however, compelling reasons for claiming that a Messi World Cup win will mean his career eclipses those of Pele and Maradona. Messi’s performances over the last month have achieved the seemingly impossible and taken his legend to another level.

When selecting Argentina as the likely winners before the tournament, my judgment was made with heart more than head. Having watched their six games, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion they are an ordinary team enhanced by one extraordinary player.

Without Messi, Argentina would not be finalists. A victory will be a consequence of Messi’s personal drive and ability to inspire those around him. His team-mates want to win the World Cup for him as much as themselves and their country. What other footballer has inspired that level of commitment and devotion?

No-one who has played the game in the last 30 years – and I include Cristiano Ronaldo – gets close to Messi’s flawlessness on a football pitch. Ronaldo is one of the greatest goalscorers ever but he has never orchestrated the tempo of a game in addition to scoring as prolifically as Messi.

There are obvious similarities between Messi in 2022 and Maradona in Mexico in 1986. As a boy watching the World Cup then, it was not so clear to me as many have judged in retrospect that Maradona dragged an average team to victory.

There is no doubt Messi will have done so if Argentina beat France. It is not just that Messi has a chance to end this tournament as the Golden Boot winner. It is not even that he is the Player of the Tournament, having created more goals than anyone else playing in Qatar.

The difference between 2022 and 1986 is that Messi is a couple of years past his peak. Maradona was 25 when he won the World Cup. Pele won his third World Cup in 1970 at the age of 30. That is not intended to downplay their phenomenal success, it is simply a fact that, aged 35, Messi’s longevity enhances the achievement.

He has dominated this tournament in a different way at the tail end of his career through his natural talent and genius in a team constructed to facilitate him. All those years of experience taught him how and when to assert his influence in the knowledge that the physical demands of 90 minutes take their toll.

We talk a lot in football about great players seeing the full picture on-field. Messi is unique in his scanning of games, his capacity to pick his moment to assert his influence as phenomenal as his dribbles and pinpoints passes.

Watching him against Croatia in the semi-final reminded me of seeing a world-class Test match batsman surveying the scene, assessing where the opposition fielders are standing as the fast bowler approaches. Messi does that amid the hectic pace of a football match, knowing exactly where and when to raise the tempo to receive and place the ball precisely where he wants it. No matter what his rivals do, they cannot stop him.

No footballer has ever had such a capacity to bend a match to his will; especially when he goes from zero to 80 mph in a split second, the ball seemingly attached to his boot.

Messi spent most of the last game playing walking football. The passage of play before Argentina’s third goal when the outstanding Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol was mesmerised by Messi was a highlight of this World Cup.

Messi’s long wait for World Cup glory adds to the theatre. While Maradona was a flawed genius, Messi has been a flawless one. Strangely, that has occasionally made it tougher for Messi to be revered in the same way as his predecessor. We are often attracted to the rascals rather than those who seem purer than pure. Argentina loved Maradona for his illegal first goal against England in 1986 as much as his amazing second.

Messi left for Europe as a boy and unfairly struggled to shift perceptions that his heart belonged to Barcelona more than Buenos Aires. His demeanour in the blue and white has been different in the last month, as if he has been more prepared to embrace the dark arts if and when necessary.

Witness the edge after victory over the Netherlands. He has never looked more like Maradona in his willingness to do whatever it takes to get his hands on this trophy. As someone who has always believed in the Vince Lombardi maxim that “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing”, you won’t find any criticism from me about Messi adopting this approach to get the job done.

Messi has no more to prove. No one can persuade me there has even been a better footballer, regardless of the result tomorrow night.

He has done so much already, leaving the deepest impression on our game. He will not be defined by the outcome of one match.

But it is a fact that, when judging the greatest ever, there is a tendency to look beyond the whole package and zone in on the historic moments.

The football gods will never be satisfied until he holds the World Cup. I hope Messi’s finest hour is upon him.


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