50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #45 Lionel Messi
One-hundred and twenty-two minutes on the clock and Argentina have a free-kick about 35 yards from goal. The little magician had just seen his team fall behind in the final of the FIFA World Cup in 2014 thanks to an inspired substitution by Joachim Low. Mario Gotze, Germany's saviour.
Everyone watched on with bated breath, waiting for Leo Messi to curl the ball into the top right corner, past the despairing dive of Manuel Neuer.
Up stepped the Barcelona man, the trademark stutter followed, that trade-mark finish never did. Another goal on top of the original wouldn't have been enough to hand Argentina a life-line.
The closest that Lionel Messi had ever come to lifting the holy grail of world football, probably the hardest night in his illustrious career. The Argentine has taken everything football has thrown at him, but glory in the most significant cup competition in the world of the sport still eludes the diminutive magician.
Even in his darkest hour, Lionel Messi's class shone through as he walked away with the Golden Ball, thanks to his 4 goals in the campaign in Brazil. But we're certain it made little difference to arguably the greatest player of his generation, the trophy that mattered the world to him was in the other dressing room.
His first goal in the competition came as an 18-year old against a hapless Serbia and Montenegro side that leaked six against the South Americans. The World Cup in 2010 was less ominous, as far as goal-scoring is concerned, but that doesn't mean Messi failed to leave an imprint on the tournament. Four assists in the group stage, before getting thrashed out of the competition at the hands of an irresistible German side.
The most auspicious tournament for the leading goal-scorer for Argentina came in the latest edition of the World Cup in Brazil. Argentina toiled their way past the group stages with one-goal wins against relative minnows Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Messi did all his scoring in these three matches including a brace against Nigeria to send his side through to the knock-out stage.
The round of sixteen should've been a walk in the park as they were faced with having to overcome a relatively weaker Swiss side. They needed extra-time and an assist from their talisman to get past them, with Angel di Maria finding the back of the net in the 118th minute.
Belgium were dealt with in the quarters thanks to an early goal from Gonzalo Higuain before needing penalties to move into the finals, after a tight goalless 120 minutes against the Dutch in the semi-finals. Messi stepped up to take the first penalty, sent the keeper the wrong way and the ball the other. Never a moment's doubt.
The heart-ache that followed in the final will probably never subside unless Leo Messi and co. plan a coup of sorts in the tournament in Russia in about a couple of months' time. Argentina are relative outsiders in the race for the World Cup 2018, as Brazil and Germany are heavy favourites with the bookmakers to go all the way.
Having almost single-handedly dragged Los Gauchos into the final 32 with a hat-trick in the crucial final qualifier against Ecuador, we will reserve our judgement regarding the prospects of the Argentine National football team till the final whistle of the tournament.
An ageing squad and new management, to say nothing of the hammering at the hands of Spain in a recent friendly, few can say definitively whether Leo Messi will have another crack at winning the only silverware, team or individual, that he hasn't been able to lay his hands on.
With the debate of the greatest footballer of all time still hinged on whether the little man can lift the most significant trophy in the game, we reckon Leo will come out all guns blazing in Russia considering it might be his last tournament in the blue and white for Argentina.
Irrespective of the outcome, we reckon the five-time Ballon d'Or winner is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of our 50 Greatest players in World Cup history.