Column: The World Cup delivers unforgiving verdict for Messi
KAZAN, Russia (AP) — Lionel Messi: Great club footballer, maybe even the greatest ever. But a great underachiever on soccer’s biggest stage.
That was the inescapable verdict delivered at the World Cup by the quick feet of a teenager as exciting and full of potential as Messi was himself at the same age.
Enter Kylian. Farewell Lionel.
Kylian Mbappe scored twice in a 4-3 victory that put France into the quarterfinals and surely spelled the end of the Messi era that spanned four World Cups for Argentina.
Messi promised so much when he, like France’s teenage prodigy, exploded on the showcase tournament in 2006, scoring one goal and creating another in his debut as a second-half substitute. But unlike the 19-year-old Mbappe, who scored twice Saturday, Messi never delivered goals when they counted most at the World Cup, in the stay-or-go-home knockout games.
France came from behind to beat Argentina in the pulsating round-of-16 match, showing it has mental strength to go with defense-snapping speed and goal-scoring talent. It was Mbappe’s first taste of the unforgiving pressure of the World Cup’s knockout rounds. He thrived. Messi didn’t, again.
This was an eighth World Cup knockout game for Messi, including the final won by Germany in 2014. Diego Maradona, the 1986 World Cup winner who was in the Kazan Arena to witness this loss, also played in eight World Cup knockout games during his career for Argentina. Maradona seared himself into World Cup legend by scoring in them.
Four goals in total, in the 1986 World Cup that Argentina won with Maradona as its captain. Two — one sublime, the other the ridiculous “Hand of God” — Maradona scored in a quarterfinal against England. The other two came in a 2-0 semifinal defeat of Belgium that took Argentina to the final where it beat Germany 3-2.
That victory and those goals are why Maradona is mentioned in the same breath as Pele, a three-time World Cup winner. And not having World Cup feats to match is why Messi will now forever be just below them in the pantheon of football.
As they still do with Johan Cruyff and George Best, people will reminisce about Messi’s skills for decades to come. They’ll talk about his record goal-tally for Barcelona, the trophies amassed with the Catalan club and his five world player of the year awards. But they’ll also wonder how it was that Argentina’s record scorer could never deliver the World Cup trophy and only score in early group-stage games.
The fault was never Messi’s alone. At this World Cup in Russia, likely his last shot at the prize at age 31, his Argentina teammates didn’t have the skill, strategies or formation to bring their star into play as his Barcelona club does so effectively. Messi was often isolated, transparent, a bystander against France, visible only because of his luminous green shoes. He was neutralized for long stretches by N’Golo Kante, France’s ball-stealing defensive midfielder.
“We tried many different tactics, surround him, create situations for him,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “We tried to use everything we had to allow him to do what he can do. Sometimes we managed to do so, sometimes we didn’t.”
The other school of thought is that Messi also is to blame for never fulfilling Argentina’s high expectations, that he doesn’t care enough. But that is unfair. He certainly seemed to care during Argentina’s haphazard campaign at this World Cup, from the moment he tore off his captain’s armband in frustration after an opening 1-1 group-stage draw with Iceland, where he missed a penalty, to the bitter end on the pitch in Kazan, standing with hands on hips after the defeat, looking like he was dead inside.
The highlight reel of Messi’s World Cup career contains many moments to cherish. Goals against the likes of Iran and Bosnia in 2014, but always in group-stage games. A successful penalty kick shootout when he converted from the spot against the Netherlands in the 2014 semifinal. Other moments where he set teammates up to score.
Messi did that again against France, with a long pass delivered like a kiss to the head of Sergio Aguero, who directed the ball into the net for Argentina’s ultimately fruitless final goal.
But reel all the way back to the very start of Messi’s World Cup career, to the kid who just shy of his 19th birthday and was applauded by super-fan Maradona as he came on for the first time, against Serbia, and what jumps out is not just the speed Messi wielded back then but also how confident and carefree he seemed.
A far cry from the careworn Messi in Russia, but very much like Mbappe now. As the World Cup loses one star, it gave birth to another.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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