James Lawton: Can Messi carry Argentina to victory at 2014 World Cup?
If Lionel Messi was a gunfighter every rival would now be entitled to duck for cover. Astonishingly, he seems to get more authoritative, more ingenious, and more unstoppable with each new appearance.
Perhaps the iridescence of two of his most recent performances, against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and Santos in Sunday's Club WorldCup final in Yokohama, had something to do with the notional concept that on both occasions he was sharing the field with a player who might one day challenge seriously his status as the world No 1.
It is at least a possibility but maybe an unlikely one because there is something about Messi at the moment which suggests his awareness that he is simply beyond comparison. Partly it is a hauteur that is sometimes obscured by the business of his game. Partly it is the conviction that he can do anything he chooses, chase any ball, go into any thicket of opposition, and emerge in command of all space and every possibility.
This was especially obvious in the Madrid game, when Cristiano Ronaldo, despite playing in a team that was initially much more settled into its game plan, seemed to shrivel a little more with each new piece of evidence that Messi was capable of transforming even the most discouraging of circumstances.
Messi was Barcelona. Ronaldo was the most discordant part of Real.
On Sunday the 19-year-old Brazilian prodigy Neymar lacked the underpinning Real offered to Ronaldo. Santos were a forlorn parody of the team that used to roam across the world with Pele at the heart of everything they did. Neymar, inevitably, looked relatively slight as Barcelona destroyed both Santos and the idea of serious competition long before the first half was over.
Barça's coach, Pep Guardiola, was certainly within his rights when he announced: "My players were like artists. Whatever they envisaged in their minds they were able to do it on the pitch. It was an incredible performance." It owed so much to the little man who scored two goals and made another so brilliantly it seemed more a statement of ownership than genius.
There is only one question now and, though a definitive answer will probably never be possible, we might just get a little closer to it in Brazil in three years' time. Can Messi do for Argentina what he does for Barcelona so often – and Pele and Messi's compatriot Diego Maradona did for their countries at the World Cup?
It is true that in this new age of football the case can be made that the World Cup is no longer the defining stage it was for Pele in 1970 and Maradona in 1986 and that what Messi has achieved so relentlessly for Barça carries a cachet all of its own.
Certainly, it can be argued that Messi's insignificant impact on the last World Cup in South Africa was maybe inevitable in the erosion of confidence that overtook the coaching of the old hero Maradona. Still, it is hard to believe that the tactical chaos that overtook Argentina in Cape Town, when a young German team were utterly ascendant, and the timidity of selection that left the stripling Messi on the bench in Germany four years earlier, will bedevil one of the world's most sophisticated football nations for a third straight campaign.
At the very least Brazil 2014 is an intriguing football milestone which most of the game will surely see as the most appropriate coronation of a 27-year-old Messi.
What we perhaps shouldn't lose sight of in the current glow of the diminutive maestro is the scale of the required achievement. If an increasing number of football judges lean to the possibility that Messi may just be the best player we have ever seen, there is still a most compelling counter-argument.
We engage it the moment we put aside the mystique of Pele and Maradona and encounter the astonishing facts of their existence as the world's leading players.
Pele established himself in the Santos team before his 16th birthday. He erupted in the World Cup final in Stockholm a year a later. A dozen years on, he was the player of players in the magnificent World Cup of Mexico, doing things that his friend and rival Sir Bobby Charlton believed, deep in his bones, would never be surpassed. Another of his admirers, John Giles, pointed out that the greatest strength of Pele was not in the miracles of his strength and his skill but in the perfection of his vision – and humility.
The humility, this was, never to forget that he was part of a team and that if a colleague was in a better position invariably he would receive the pass. Pele's most extraordinary bouts of virtuosity came always out of necessity rather than some fleeting caprice.
Maradona, in Mexico City, in 1986, was another kind of miracle. He was a fighting cock, strutting into restaurants, taking his bows and laughing in the face of the English indignation which greeted his hand of God. Most memorable, of course, were the individual feats of brilliance which destroyed England and Belgium and then unlocked the door of a superb German defence in the final. Never before – or since, as it happens – had an individual player picked up an entire team and carried them over the finish line of the greatest race in the world.
Could Messi one day do that? We have already said that he can do anything. But then so could Pele and Maradona. Even in the fierce heat of Messi's progress it is something that football should maybe not forget.