Argentinian soccer superstar Lionel Messi has been considered an all-time great for nearly a decade now.
But now, he not only has the chance to further solidify his standing on the sport’s Mount Rushmore, but he could very well guarantee his spot at the top of the list as its greatest player ever.
Messi, 35, has never won a World Cup title — the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect resume — and he has the chance to amend that Sunday in the final against France at 10 a.m.
“Let’s see how the final goes,” soccer analyst Alejandro Moreno said on ESPN FC when asked if the “GOAT” — greatest of all time — debate is over, with Messi atop the mountain.
Messi leading Argentina to the World Cup as Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal faltered in the quarterfinals already extended the Argentinian’s lead over Ronaldo for this generation’s best player. Ronaldo has also never won a World Cup, and the 37-year-old has said he won’t be playing in the tournament four years from now.
But a World Cup medal is all that’s missing from Messi’s trophy case, which includes a record seven Ballon d’Or awards, six European Golden Shoes and 10 La Liga titles with Barcelona. To many soccer fans, especially younger ones, a World Cup title is all that former greats Pele (Brazil) and Diego Maradona (Argentina) have over Messi.
Winning Sunday over defending champion France would change that.
“I have watched lots of videos of Diego Maradona, who was a similar player, but Messi is better,” D.C. United coach Wayne Rooney told The Times (U.K.) in November. “He has everything — the way he controls games, his dribbling, his assists — whereas Ronaldo is more of a goal scorer.”
Of course, not everyone agrees. Some camps believe Maradona is the sport’s greatest player, while others think it’s Pele. And nothing Messi can do, in their minds, will change that — not even winning a World Cup.
“Whether he wins it or not, I personally don’t believe that he overtakes Maradona,” soccer analyst Stephen Nicol said on ESPN FC. “I just think Maradona is the best player that ever played.”
The World Cup in Qatar is Messi’s fifth, and his last — something he confirmed after Argentina defeated Croatia, 3-0, on Tuesday.
The championship will be his 26th World Cup appearance — a record. His 11 World Cup goals are the most any Argentina player has scored. And he’s the only player in history to score a World Cup goal in his teens, 20s and 30s.
“I don’t have any doubt,” Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni told reporters in Qatar when asked if he thinks Messi is the best player in soccer history. “I am honored to be able to train him, to see him playing. And it is something exciting, because every time you see him play, it’s a huge source of motivation for his teammates, for the people of Argentina, and for the whole world. So there is nothing left to say about Messi.”
Argentina hasn’t won a World Cup since 1986 when it took down West Germany 3-2 for its second title, with the other coming in 1978 versus the Netherlands. It has since lost two finals — 1990 to West Germany 1-0 and 2014 to Germany 1-0. Messi was on the 2014 squad that fell to the Germans, but he still won the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament.
Messi enters Sunday’s match with five goals — tied with France’s Kylian Mbappe for the tournament lead, known as the Golden Boot. The Argentina captain could cap off his World Cup career, not just with his first title — one that would be the first in over a generation for one of soccer’s most iconic countries — but also with a second Golden Ball and the Golden Boot.
If Messi’s semifinal performance is any indication, in which he scored a goal and utilized his unmatchable skill to assist a Julian Alvarez goal, then soccer’s “GOAT” debate would change forever.
“If he puts yet another performance like this,” Moreno said, “I think the discussion should be over.”
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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