Argentina advanced to the World Cup semifinals for first time in 24 years Saturday, but the win also extends Lionel Messi’s opportunity for greatness.
Employing his signature touch, blazing footwork and unparalleled balance, the forward shook off Belgian defenders left and right during the 1-0 quarterfinal victory, but didn’t quite put together a signature moment that would instill him in the hearts of La Albiceleste supporters.
But if Saturday’s victory over Belgium is any indication, Messi is slowly building toward a phenomenal moment that will cement his legacy in Argentina and around the world.
The bar is set very high for Messi, especially when’s juxtaposed to such Argentine greats like Alfredo di Stefano and Diego Maradona, and contemporaries like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and while he’s far exceeded his performances from the last two World Cups he hasn’t had a moment that separates or elevates him into legendary air.
Yes, Messi’s totaled four goals and an assist, and Argentina has won five consecutive matches, but ultimately Messi’s status as one of the game’s greats will be judged by his success in the World Cup.
Before the tournament began, this was seen as Messi’s last time to truly shine in the heart of his prime and make any real impact for Argentina on the global stage before the next batch of young La Albiceleste rose and Messi slowly entered his final productive years.
His time with Barcelona aside, Messi had to work his way through his international difficulties before his coronation as Argentina’s most important player.
In his first World Cup back in 2006 in Germany, Messi became the youngest player to ever represent his country and wound up with a goal and assist before Argentina were ousted by Germany in the quarters. Then only 19, Messi was relegated to the bench during the 4-2 shootout loss but it likely helped him understand what it meant to lose while wearing the crest of one’s country over your heart.
Four years later in South Africa he was pegged as facilitator rather than scorer, and though he aided the majority of Argentina’s 10 goals during the tournament, it wasn’t the breakout performance many expected from Messi and Argentina was bounced from the quarters for the second straight time.
Now Messi has learned from his experiences and mistakes and there is little doubt in his abilities to lead Argentina or affect a match like other South American greats like Pele, Maradona or Brazil’s Ronaldo before him.
Messi has scored four of Argentina’s eight goals during this year’s tournament, and assisted another. He singlehandedly lifted La Albiceleste with a deep left-footed strike against a ceaseless Iran defense, and kept Nigeria at bay with two goals in the group stage.
In the Round of 16 against Switzerland, it was Messi who led the fastbreak and dished off to Angel Di Maria for the winning goal in the 118 th minute.
Those three performances alone should have signaled to Belgium that Messi was in top form, and that he would always find a way to affect a match.
If a player’s worth is measured by how well he adjusts to gradually increasing pressure from opposing defenses, then Messi might be the best player still standing in this year’s tournament.
Wherever the 27-year-old star turned, with the ball or not, he was swarmed by struggling Belgian players forced to resort to leg sweeps and blatant hacks to his ankles just to slow his progress.
There was the brilliant through ball deep inside Argentine territory to the streaking and all-alone Di Maria that could have been the game’s second goal and all but assured a La Albiceleste victory after 28 minutes, the backward-heel passes to Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi along the wings to prolong possession and increase scoring opportunities, and the Dosey Doe dribbling through the heart of Belgium’s backline that resulted in a free kick opportunity in the 40 th.
The Red Devils threw everything at Messi, but he employed a counter measure or used escape route at every turn. Supporters around the globe, whether Messi admirers or detractors, recognized what was happening.
Lionel Messi Is honestly a god...no joke
â€” Daniel Campos (@Daniel_97C) July 5, 2014
â€” Stefano Guglietti (@StefGugs) July 5, 2014
Lionel Messi is the player who created most chances (18) and completed most dribbles (24) so far this World Cup :))
â€” Fatimah Zahra Narejo (@FaffiZahra) July 5, 2014
Whether its scoring or setting up goals, stretching defenses with early crosses, or chasing down a loose ball, Messi has finally extended his club success to the international stage, and that could mean a World Cup title for Argentina.