Lionel Messi doesn't need World Cup win to become best player ever

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Lionel Messi is without doubt one of the greatest footballers to grace the earth, and suggestions that the Barcelona and Argentina superstar needs to win the World Cup before he can be eulogised alongside the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona as one of the best ever is, quite frankly, nonsense.

The 27-year-old has already provided plenty of evidence to stake a claim for top status with the endless number of individual records broken at club level. His international underachievement should not tarnish the legacy that his talent will undoubtedly leave behind.

World Cup heartache

In Brazil this summer, Messi and Argentina fell at the final hurdle after suffering a 1-0 extra-time defeat at the hands of Germany. After the game the diminutive forward still received recognition for his prior tournament performances, picking up the FIFA Golden Ball award, which was met with a surprisingly negative reaction.

However, the criticism that came should really be taken as a compliment by Messi, because it reflects the level of expectation from supporters that have become accustomed to his unwaveringly wonderful displays of seasons gone by.

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The truth is that Messi's showing at this, his third World Cup, was a little below par by his own high standards, even though he scored four goals in the opening three games - including a contender for goal of the tournament - won four man of the match awards, completed more dribbles per game than any other player, and put the most balls in the box of anyone else in the competition.

He carried his country almost singlehandedly to the final, but met his match when faced with a ruthlessly efficient Germany side that dismantled host nation Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals.

Messi critics

Detractors will point to 420 minutes of knockout football that Messi failed to even register once, ignoring the match-winning assist he put on a plate for Angel di Maria to secure a 1-0 extra-time victory against Switzerland in the last 16.

His seemingly lethargic demeanour attracted attention though, leading to the scrutinisation of Messi's more static performances in matches where his movement was noticeably reduced.

The conclusion was that the player was jaded and suffering from burnout and exhaustion. But, that would be ignoring the fact that in almost every game the pint-sized magician is singled out for preferential treatment from his opponents, be it in the form of a man marker or - like in the Iran game - the entire team closing Messi down as soon as he was in possession of the ball.

You could argue, then, that every moment of magic - like the stunning solo goal he scored in the opening game in Group F against Bosnia & Herzegovina - was even more impressive given the added pressure and other obstacles that Messi faced compared to other players.

James Rodriguez, for example, capitalised on a generous amount of space on the edge of the box to net a brilliant back-to-goal volley against Uruguay in the last 16. It was room that Messi could only have dreamed about, having been marshalled effectively for the majority of the tournament.

Many people seem to forget that the 2013/14 campaign was actually one of Messi's most disrupted by injury, whilst a number of other contributing factors stacked up against him, make it remarkable he has come out the other side still managing to maintain form.

A difficult 12 months

In addition to missing over three months of football last term the past 12 months has also seen Messi accused of tax evasion because of mistakes made by his entourage when he was just 17. His father was also wrongly accused of money laundering and drug trafficking in Colombia by one of the biggest newspapers in Spain.

Tito Vilanova, one of the main men responsible for taking care of Messi as a youth player tragically passed away, and to make matters worse a close friend by the name of Jorge "Topo" Lopez died in a car accident just hours before Argentina's semi-final clash against Holland.

He still managed to score 41 goals and make 14 assists in 46 matches for Barcelona, and since the turn of the year no player has scored more league goals (20) than Messi in any of Europe's top five leagues during 2014.

High standards maintained

People underestimate how much a person can struggle and still perform at the highest level, and this is an example of where Messi's contribution is overlooked because of the reputation that precedes him.

Since 2004, when he first burst onto the scene at Camp Nou, Messi has scored a mesmerising 243 goals in 277 La Liga games for Barcelona. In 2012 he scored 91 goals in all competitions in the space of ONE calendar year. The Champions League - Europe's elite club competition - has also proven to be a walk in the park, with 67 goals in 86 appearances. Not bad at all.

Messi v Maradona v Pele: comparison

Of course, it's difficult to actually put these achievements into context when trying to compare Messi with fellow greats like Maradona and Pele; two players that came from an entirely different era of football. And, that's before you even take into account the fact that the respective career paths of all three stars is unparalleled, with each individual winning accolades the other two will never be able to touch.

Pele won the World Cup three times and scored over 1000 professional goals, but he never played in Europe. He played in finals against some great European teams but never spent an entire season playing at that level.

Maradona did enjoy a successful spell in Europe with Napoli but never made it further than the European Cup quarter-finals, though that was with a significantly weaker team than what Messi has played in at Barcelona. Still, the current Argentine star has lifted that trophy three times and scored more goals over two seasons at Camp Nou than Maradona did in his entire seven-year stay at Stadio San Paolo.

Who is the best?

Messi's record number of goals in one season (73) is more than three times Maradona's best return in Europe (21) and also better than Pele's highest scoring campaign (66).

Pele and Maradona have more World Cup wins and spectacular World Cup moments, with the Argentine's inspirational form responsible for guiding his country to glory at the 1986 tournament in Mexico the reason why his standing amongst most supporters in his homeland is still above Messi.

Even if the four time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner never lays his hands on the most prestigious trophy he must still be regarded as the greatest individual in the game. Winning the World Cup would help his case hugely to convince the doubters, but it's not a prerequisite by any means.

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Lionel Messi
World Cup
Argentina Football

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