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Messi keeps the world waiting…

|By Sanjib Guha|

Who is the God of football? In most cases, there would be two answers — Edson Arantes do Nascimento ‘Pele’ and Diego Armando Maradona. But stakes were high for Argentina’s Lionel Messi to join the panel of ‘Gods’ in build-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

What Pele did in 1958 & 1970 or Maradona in 1986 was required from Messi in 2014. But with Germany notching up the title, the Argentine’s dreams were crushed and he is left to heal his wounds alone.

The more-than-a-decade awe of Pele was believed to be the best ever till Maradona entered the scene in 1986. The pint-sized attacking midfielder made critics eat their own words and eventually force them to accept him as the God of football. I feel blessed to have got an opportunity to interact with the charismatic Argentine during his India visit back in 2008.

Conventionally, World Cup exploits have played a mammoth role in asserting players’ greatness rather than club assignments.

There were a plethora of greats even before Maradona. Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Vava, Garrincha, Didi, Tostao and many other who on their days were no less than Pele or Maradona.

But what separated them from the duo is the impact on World Cups – which throws in unseen raw talent from every nook and corner of the globe.

Pele was instrumental in Brazil’s three World Cup wins in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

He announced his arrival in 1958 with a winner against Wales in the quarter finals and becoming the youngest footballer to score a World Cup goal. His exploits in the semis and final (matches mattered most) were even better.

A hat-trick in the penultimate fixture against France and a brace in the title showdown against Sweden for identical 5-2 victories propelled the Brazilian to a peak which hardly anyone achieved.Injury woes struck Pele in the next two World Cups (1962, and 1966), but he came back to form a dream team with Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gérson, Carlos Alberto Torres, Tostão and Clodoaldo in 1970 – giving Brazil their third world title.

A similar magic was recreated 16 years later when Maradona displayed vintage class and managed to almost single-handedly win the nation its second World Cup title.

The South Americans neither had great composition nor great record to boast of, but they had El Diego — a genius in his own right. After kicking off the campaign with a goal against Italy in the group league, Maradona went on rampage.

The ‘Hand of God’ followed by the ‘Goal of Century’ were the menu for England. The Belgians in the semis too were at the receiving end against the Argentine bulldozer.

In the final, Maradona was put under double marking by Germany, but he managed to evade that and set up the winner for Jorge Burruchaga. The mission was accomplished and Maradona moved into the bracket of ‘greatest’. He scored five goals and had an equal number of assists.

The next World Cup in 1990 again saw Maradona leading from the front, but the journey was halted in final with Germany exacting a sweet revenge of the last edition.

Other greats like Cruyff and Eusebio excelled at club level, but failed to win a World Cup despite being close to that. Cruyff’s Holland finished runners-up in 1974 while Eusebio’s run ended in the semis against England in 1966.

In 2014, the stage was set for Messi to emulate his predecessor Maradona by winning a World Cup for Argentina after 28 years.

The Barcelona forward even made positive strides initially by denying Iran a point with an immaculate free-kick that defied physics for a long-ranger goal from a dead ball situation.

Messi’s journey towards the ‘greatest’ club, which has only two members Pele and Maradona, looked a distinct possibility with deft touches and clinical finishes quietly coming through. But the awe started fizzling out in the knockout phase when big boys joined the party.

The playmaker was soon sent into the shell owing to close marking by the opponents leaving Argentina in a quandary. Goals dried up as ‘finishing’ was a major area of concern with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero virtually making no impact. The road for Messi’s Argentina was relatively easier as they didn’t have to face the top teams till the semi-final, unlike Brazil and Germany, but the over-dependence on Messi and lack of finishers did Argentina in.

However, one lives on hopes. Four years on, Messi will only be 31 and there is no reason why he can’t emulate Pele and Maradona in Russia 2018. Let’s wait till then and then take a call.

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