Lionel Messi and the realisation of World Cup destiny
It is called the beautiful game not just for the magic on the field, but for the career-defining stories that can inspire a generation.
There are moments of individual glory that are reserved for only the greatest players who grace the beautiful game. Inevitably, most of these moments that have occurred over the course of the last decade have involved Lionel Messi. However, while usually reserved for the colours of Barcelona, this week he saved his best for the colours of his country, as Argentina booked their place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals.
Things were going horribly wrong for Jorge Sampaoli and his side when Ecuador took the lead in the crucial qualifier inside the opening minute, but there was too much at stake for Lionel Messi to let his country fail him at this crucial stage of his career, and the diminutive genius turned the game around with a hat-trick that involved moments of brilliance that only he could provide.
Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer in the history of the game. He stands above the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona as they were from a different era, a time when opponents lacked the superior fitness levels, the need for physical and mental perfection, and the game lacked the same intensity and pressure.
He also stands above Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern game, as Ronaldo's quality is partly manufactured through his physical strength and conditioning, while Messi simply embraces the talent that he was born with. Charting the rise and the rivalry between these two enchanting talents is a privilege that should be savoured and embraced, as it may never be repeated.
During the 2018 World Cup finals, Lionel Messi will turn 31, and this is, therefore, his final chance to star on this particular stage at the peak of his power. The fact that the trophy eludes him does not stand him in good stead when the Pele and Maradona comparisons are made, but finally lifting the iconic symbol of the world game would confirm his deserved status.
And to succeed at a World Cup with this Argentina team will require Lionel Messi to be at his incredible best, as this is a side that he will again need to carry over the line just like he did this week in qualification. His evolving role in Ernesto Valverde's Barcelona side requires a certain level of discipline and responsibility, a maturity to bring the best out of his team as much as from himself.
It is inevitable that some big names will miss the opportunity to star at the finals of a major tournament, but a World Cup without the brilliance of Lionel Messi would be fundamentally wrong. Argentina had no divine right to qualify through his presence, but it was his presence in the decisive qualifying match that ensured they will head to Russia next summer.
It seems that Lionel Messi is destined to make headlines at the World Cup finals in Russia, such has been his contribution in ensuring that he is there. The pain of the 2014 final defeat to Germany will still haunt him, but there are many examples in the game of players experiencing the bad times before the good on their way to ultimate glory, and the scene is set for his crowning moment.
He cannot do it alone, but he must be the leader and the inspiration, the talismanic icon that can repeat the Argentine success of 1978 and 1986. It was in Mexico at the latter tournament that Diego Maradona celebrated his greatest triumph, and many highlight his individual contribution as being the overriding catalyst to all that Carlos Bilardo's team achieved.
History has a habit of repeating itself in football, and while lessons are learnt from the past, many great moments are replayed in different ways. The characters of Maradona and Messi are very different, but they share unique similarities in their footballing style, and it is their natural abilities that ensure they are considered to be a different breed to any of their professional peers.
Meanwhile, there is an added twist to the tale, as Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal ensured that the reigning European champions will also be at the World Cup finals next summer. Like Argentina, they also left it until the final stages of qualification, but avoided a scare to record the necessary victory against Switzerland on the same night as Argentina confirmed their place.
The two players have developed one of the most intriguing and intense rivalries in the modern game, and their individual greatness means that they play on a different planet to any of their opponents. Messi has the slight age advantage as Ronaldo will be 33 in Russia, but both men know that this tournament represents their last real chance to make a significant impact on this defining stage.
There is also a chance that this could be their final appearances at a World Cup, as there is no guarantee that either player will be at the level necessary to help ensure qualification by the time that the controversial tournament in Qatar comes around in 2022. Next summer will be their defining time on the international stage, and it seems almost inevitable that their paths will cross there.
There is a mutual respect between the pair, and a professional appreciation for the brilliance of the other. But there is also a fierce competition to be the best, and they should be thankful for that fact that they have pushed each other into not affording themselves to fall into the trap of complacency. There are records that both players are desperate to claim, and whoever stops first will open the door for the other.
So, who will claim the ultimate prize in Russia? Portugal impressed as a collective unit at the European Championships and have that winning mentality. They also have Cristiano Ronaldo. Argentina have much work to do in preparation for the finals, but there is a destiny about their qualification story that makes for the perfect football romance, and they have Lionel Messi.
Iconic figures have been responsible for World Cup success in the past, and it is the stage that defines careers above all else. Lionel Messi's haul of silverware and individual accolades is unmatched, but he still sits in the shadow of the figure that has been the inspiration for generations of young Argentinian footballers.
Now is the time for greatness and perfection to have its reward. Maradona was a flawed genius, but also a maverick held in unparalleled esteem in his home country. His failings require a new king to emerge, but only World Cup glory will propel Lionel Messi to the level of recognition his talent and character deserve. It is a destiny, a prophecy, that must now be fulfilled.