It’s all about the #TROPHIEZ

Lionel_Messi_in_tears_after_the_finalOn 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:

Potential is not destiny

Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany last week followed by an uninspired 3-0 defeat against the Netherlands in the World Cup’s vestigial third place match on Saturday cast into stark relief the national team’s deficiencies relative to other world powers. Obviously, the 7-1 result was a sort of “black swan” event—a highly unlikely worst-case scenario—but no one watching Brazil’s first five matches in the tournament should have been arguing that Brazil, even with Neymar and Thiago Silva, was a better soccer team than Germany then. Except many were. And many spent the tournament treating Brazil like a team that was far more dangerous than the one actually on the field playing.

I mention this because it struck me throughout the tournament how similar a phenomenon the systematic overrating of Brazil’s national team was to the declarations in 2009-2010 that Brazil had finally “arrived” as an economic power. Saying that the Brazilian team is overrated or that it has not “arrived” as an economic power is a relative discussion; Brazil finished 4th at a tournament in which more than 200 countries try to qualify and its economy is the 6th largest in the world by certain measures. Brazil’s national team is among the best in the world, and with a couple more breaks, could have lifted the trophy this year. Similarly, Brazil’s economy is huge and dynamic, even as growth lags and inflation pushes up.

The problem in both instances was the process of evaluation. In 2010, Brazil’s GDP grew by 7.5 percent after a barely perceptible recession in 2009 following the Financial Crisis and the world decided this was the new norm. This analysis downplayed or completely ignored the structural problems like poor infrastructure and education as well as an inefficient bureaucracy and a rigid labor market, none of which was being adequately addressed and treated the commodity boom generated by China’s industrialization as something which would never end. A perfect example of this would be Larry Rohter’s Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed. While talking up Brazil’s future Rohter acknowledges many of issues that have come to mire Brazil in 1 percent GDP growth the past two years, but simply brushes them off, assuming that they would be resolved. Commentary during the World Cup followed a similar pattern; an acknowledgement that Brazil had not played well, followed by an assertion that Brazil would make the necessary changes and a declaration that they were still definitely the favorites.

The point is not to denigrate Brazil or to argue for blanket pessimism (just look how silly all those doom and gloom projections for the World Cup turned out). Simply to acknowledge the tendency to project what we think Brazil should be onto what Brazil actually is. Brazil has the potential to be among the most powerful countries in the world and to challenge for the World Cup every time. The key is to not treat potential as destiny.