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Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Sports

World Cup: Messi's ready to make mark

The New Paper | Thursday, Jun 12, 2014

Lionel Messi will be facing up to a new type of pressure when he lines up for Argentina against Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 16 (Singapore time) at the Maracana.

For almost a decade, the eyes of the world have fallen on the man from Rosario as he dazzled everyone from Catalunya to Clapham as the talisman of a Barcelona side who swept aside all before them.

Since making his debut in 2004, Messi has won three Champions League titles, six Primera Liga titles and the Ballon d'Or for four consecutive years from 2009 to 20012.

Lionel Messi is not 27 until June 24, the day before Argentina face Nigeria in their final Group F game in Brazil.

Despite achieving all that before the age that most mere mortals are working out what they want to do, never mind being the best in the world at it, the crown is beginning to slip in the eyes of some.

This year, the Ballon d'Or, the title given to the player regarded as the best in the world, was handed to Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, the man with whom Messi has been duelling for top spot for a number of years.

Two months on the sidelines from November until January did not help his cause and Messi was without a league goal in open play from September until February, including an almost unheard run of four games without scoring either side of his injury.

CRITICISM

That led to some criticism in Spain and even led then-Barca coach Gerardo Martino to leap to the defence of his star man, saying: "Those that are negative do not realise they are affecting his pride.

"When you do that to the best player in the world, this is what happens."

Back-to-back hat-tricks against Osasuna and Real Madrid were the high point of a return to normal service before seemingly lacklustre performances against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals and Real in the Copa del Rey final.

So is Messi approaching a World Cup on his home continent out of form? Hardly.

His goals-to-games ratio this season is around one to one, a drop-off from the past two years but that fact merely shows what sort of level Messi is functioning on.

This is an off-year only when you operate on the sort of exalted plane that he does.

And the Argentina captain must know this summer's tournament in Brazil offers him the chance to join the ranks of the true greats of the game.

"I have arrived with the national team and I am flipping the switch. Many times it was the opposite, I would go to Barcelona and play well, this time we hope the reverse is true," he said.

"When I get together on the pitch with my friends on the national team, it is going to be a different story."

Many already regard him to be in the same bracket as Pele and Diego Maradona but, for some, only a win or a starring role on the very biggest stage would catapult him into that company.

It is easy to see why that is, as many of the players who sit just below Pele and Maradona in the all-time hierarchy do not have a World Cup to their names.

Being Northern Irish meant George Best never had the chance to compete for the sport's greatest prize, while Johan Cruyff was at the epicentre of a Dutch team which brushed all before them aside on the way to 1974 final before being defeated by West Germany in the decider.

Messi was the beating heart of Argentina's team in South Africa four years ago and earned himself a Golden Ball nomination on their run to the quarter-finals, but crucially failed to score.

His national coach Alejandro Sabella warned his teammates cannot afford to sit back and expect him to win matches on his own.

"There is a team which must help Messi," he said.

"We cannot put all the responsibility on his shoulders.

"He is happy. He feels sheltered by his teammates."


This article was first published on June 10, 2014.
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