Lionel Messi may have evolved from being a master musician to a magical composer, but the world awaits his greatest orchestra as eagerly as the maestro himself. He has gone from being a lethal striker to a masterful playmaker, added a nuanced understanding of the passage of play and the real estate around his feet. But for all his wizardry in Argentine colours, the trophy cupboard is still bare despite appearances at six major tournaments.
Sunday’s Copa America final at the Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford will be strike three for the Argentine genius, who is eager to embellish his stamp of greatness with a cup victory for Argentina. The excruciating pain of the 2014 World Cup loss to Germany and the Copa defeat to Chile last year left Messi stained by the scars of defeat. He wants to heal those wounds with an emphatic victory over Chile. However, at 29, he is running out of time.
Messi hasn’t lacked in accomplishments — five Fifa Ballons d’Or, including four in a row, becoming the first player to win three European Golden Shoes — attest to a sustained spell of magic over the game. Eight La Liga titles and four triumphant Champions League campaigns fueled largely by the twinkling magic of Messi’s dancing feet substantiate his influence not just in Spain but all over Europe.
And yet, critics call out the one glaring hole in his resume to delay his consecration to the misty heights of football greatness. But for that one single vacuum, Messi’s acknowledgment has been universal.
“Messi is the best,” praised an exasperated Jurgen Klopp, one of the most highly rated managers in the world of football. “There must be life out there somewhere, on some other planet. Because he is too good and we are just too bad for him.”
“Messi is the best player ever,” Adriano Galliani, the chief executive of Italian giants AC Milan, gushed. “And this is said by someone who has seen Maradona and Pele play.”
The best compliments are often those that are received from your contemporaries. “It is clear that Messi is on a level above all others. Those who do not see that are blind,” said Xavi, who has plenty of football with the Argentine legend.
Messi’s greatness, however, stretches far beyond goals, though most of which have been mesmerising. For Barcelona, he’s scored 481 goals, while for Argentina, he’s netted 55; both figures that will be hard to emulate. But it is his growth and evolution into an unparalleled playmaker that sets him aside from the greatest players to have played the beautiful game.
Messi’s enormous presence irrespective of whether he plays right, centre or as a false nine have showcased his vision, creativity and unmatched genius time after time. The physics of his game are a compelling sight both in design and execution. At just 170-cm, Messi enjoys a low centre of gravity and makes the most of it. He has used his short stature to dance his way around perplexed defenders — racing through them with sheer pace or tricking them into submission through his creative wizardry.
One of those many magical moments came in the 2015 Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich. Messi’s dribbling nuance forced Jerome Boateng down to his knees, before the Argentine maestro chipped the ball past a stunned Manuel Neuer into the net. It is an aesthetic piece of art that shall remain etched into the grand theatre of Champions League folklore. It was a night in which Messi scored two goals, separated by just three minutes, before he assisted with a third goal to throttle their formidable opponents from Munich.
Even in this specially crafted Copa America Centenario, a one-off event to celebrate the rich heritage of the competition, Messi has provided us some typically mesmerising moments. A curling free kick against the United States that left an entire field numb and astounded; the brilliantly devised pass to Gonzalo Higuain in front of a nearly open goal was characteristic.
Messi does genius like we drive a car to work through messy Indian traffic. An international trophy is within striking distance, so Messi and company will still need to keep their heads together for one more match before they can start exulting about a nearly perfect tournament.
Eduardo Vargas, the leading scorer in this Copa Centenario with six goals, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal will be hungry to avenge the only loss of this tournament, the 1-2 defeat to Argentina in their first match. Argentina will be eager to avenge their defeat in the finals last year, 1-4 on penalties. Javier Mascherano and Higuain will need to step it up on Sunday to make up for the likely absence of Ezequiel Lavezzi (left elbow), Augusto Fernandez and Angel di Maria (abductor) and play the perfect accomplices to Messi’s heroics in order to deliver a 15 th Copa to La Albiceleste.
If the men in white and blue win on Sunday, it will end a 23-year title drought. Most importantly though, the team will have decorated their captain with that final dose of greatness needed to catapult his legend to the top of the pantheon of football greatness.