Does Lionel Messi need to win the World Cup to become the greatest player ever?

Sam Pilger looks at if amazing Argentine needs to wins football’s richest prize to be considered among the best of all time….

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You would imagine boasting the best player in the world, a mam many argue is already the greatest footballer ever, would be a huge source of pride for Argentina.

But the problem is most of Lionel Messi’s genius takes place 6,500 miles away in Barcelona, and on the streets of Buenos Aires and across the country, Argentinian fans still demand to know, ‘What has Messi ever done for us?’

For Barcelona, Messi has won everything possible, including nine La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, and for himself, five Ballon d’Ors, but he is still yet to deliver Argentina a major international trophy.

No World Cup, and not even a Copa America. With Messi, Argentina have reached four finals, but lost them all, the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016, and at the World Cup in Brazil four years ago.

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No matter how many trophies he wins for Barcelona, they will never compensate for Messi’s perceived failure with Argentina.

After leaving Argentina to play for Barcelona aged only 13; some feel Messi doesn’t fully understand the passion of playing for the national team, and incredibly he has even been jeered by his own fans.

In the 1980s, Argentina were also able to boast they had the best player in the world, hailed as the greatest ever: Diego Maradona, and he is worshipped there more than Messi, for he was able to win them the World Cup in 1986.

Messi remains firmly in Maradona’s enormous shadow in his home country.

It seems ridiculously harsh, almost greedy, but the brutal truth is Messi still needs that World Cup to gain the unconditional love of his countrymen, and end the wider debate about who is the greatest ever.

As his Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli says without much subtlety, “The World Cup is like a gun pointing at Lionel Messi’s head, ready to shoot if he doesn’t win.”

In truth the Messi v Maradona debate about who is the greatest ever player should be a short one, and overwhelmingly in Messi’s favour.

So far in his club career for Barcelona, Messi has scored an incredible 552 goals, a far superior record to Maradona, who managed 312.

It means that Messi has already scored 240 more club goals than Maradona, and still has probably another five years to play at the top of his game.

In the Champions League, now the highest standard of football in the world, even more so than the World Cup, Messi has scored 100 goals, compared to Maradona who scored just twice in the competition in the 1980s.

And to complete the rout, Messi has won 22 major trophies at club level, including four Champions League, while Maradona claimed only seven, and went no further than the second round of the European Cup.

And yet for all of this, Maradona can trump all of this in the eyes his fellow Argentinians with that one World Cup win in 1986, when he inspired a modest side to victory, and was involved in 10 of their 14 goals during the tournament.

There remains a perception, that Maradona made good players great, while Messi is an important cog in a great club teams, with other geniuses helping to serve him, including Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

The lack of a World Cup is always the main argument used to dismiss Messi’s claims to be known as the greatest ever, and without one some will never elevate him on to the same plinth as Maradona and Pele.

Messi is running out of chances to win his own; he is now 30, and this summer will be his fourth and almost certainly his final World Cup.

He nearly didn’t make it to the World Cup at all, after a chaotic qualifying campaign saw Argentina make their way through several managers, and only qualify thanks to Messi scoring a hat-trick in a 3-1 win against Ecuador.

Messi deeply feels the frustration, the cruelness of having his patriotism questioned, and the despair at not being as loved as he should be. “If we don’t win [the World Cup], all of us must disappear,” he has said.

He has already retired from international football once before in 2016, but came back within two months, wanting one last attempt to win the World Cup.

In Russia this summer, he will be surrounded by the supreme talents of Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, and together, despite the laboured qualifying campaign, they should still have enough to build some momentum in the group stages, and go all the way.

Messi knows the prize on offer is not just the World Cup, but the love of his countrymen, and the title of the greatest player of all time.

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