On Saturday, Argentina lost to Chile in the final of the Copa América on penalties. It extended Argentina’s title drought since its 1993 Copa América win to 23 years and, after a relatively pedestrian performance, brought to the fore the question of Lionel Messi’s legacy among the very greatest players of all time. Shaka Hislop of ESPN is among those who have been very vocal that Messi can’t be considered the greatest player of all time unless he wins a World Cup. This isn’t an uncommon position, analogous to the #RINGZ criteria many fans in the US judge NBA stars and quarterbacks–actually, lets be real, it’s basically just for Peyton Manning–with a slightly less stringent version requiring only a title in a major international competition like the Copa América. I’m not going to argue about whether Messi is, or is not the greatest player of all time (though there is a strong statistical argument that he is). Instead, I am going to look at a few key plays in last year’s World Cup final to demonstrate why Hislop’s logic is terrible.
Specifically, there are three key plays in the game that, had any one of them gone differently, would have dramatically altered the course of the game in Argentina’s favor.
The first play happened early in the game. In the 21st minute, a German player misplays a header and ends up sending Gonzalo Higuaín through one-on-one versus Manuel Neuer. Higuaín, feeling pressure from behind, rushes his shot and misses the goal completely.
The second happened in the 97th minute. A ball gets played into the box and is misjudged by the German centerback, falling right to Rodrigo Palacio. Perhaps surprised to have the ball fall to him, Palacio has a bad first touch and is forced to try to loop it over a charging Neuer, missing wide to the left.
The final is the eventual game winner for Germany in the 112th minute. Martín Demichelis gets caught ball watching and loses his maker–Mario Götze–who sneaks into the space behind him to receive the cross before impressively volleying in the goal.
Interestingly enough, none of these plays involved Messi, even indirectly. Yet, if Higuaín doesn’t rush his shot, or Palacio gets a good first touch or Demichelis doesn’t lose track of his man, Argentina may well have won the World Cup, and in the eyes of many, the final box for Messi to be the greatest of all time gets checked.
I think this illustrates just how arbitrary this qualification is. Messi could have played the exact same match, but if one of his teammates makes a better play at some point during the match, he goes from being “one of the best of all time” to “the greatest of all time” without having actually done anything differently himself.
Messi may or may not be the greatest player of all time. But defining whether he is or not shouldn’t hinge on whether or not Gonzalo Higuaín can hit the goal from 12 yards out. It should depend on the cumulative body of work he’s put together over the course of hundreds of games played for both his club and country. Or, you know, Higuaín from 12 yards out: