Why Lionel Messi should thank Michael Phelps, and other ramblings about historical legacies.
It was a chance to stand beside, if not pass, his country’s greatest soccer star. A rare moment, in his prime, when he could take full advantage of his singular talent. A golden opportunity to enter the rarefied air of the consensus all-time greatest sporting legends. Messi (with a massive assist from an excellent defense) made his Argentina squad relevant, at times impregnable, and nearly unbeaten at this World Cup. But in the end, once the comfort of the group stages were behind him, he looked all too ordinary and could not quite inspire his countrymen to glory. Even though he dazzled with his usual mesmerizing dribbles and pristine shots, and even though Argentina made it farther than most expected them to, and even though he was even awarded with the 2014 World Cup Golden Ball (best player) award, many will judge this World Cup as a detriment to Messi’s legacy rather than a benefit. It’s illogical. It’s not fair. It’s also sure to happen. Just look at his face below — despondent for his country’s loss, and surely aware of its ramifications for him as an individual. Here’s why that’s a bunch of bull.
ESPN’s SportsCentury series, which began as the turn of the millennium approached, involved an attempt by “a panel of sports journalists and observers” to rank the top 100 North American athletes of all time. While it was an entertaining exercise and it still could provide fodder for endless arguments, it was ultimately an obviously Americo-centric endeavor which included 23 baseball players in the top 100. Although soccer has been the most popular sport on a global scale for decades, the top 100 list managed to include exactly zero soccer players — for example, no mention of Mexican standout and Real Madrid legend Hugo Sanchez, and no Pele even though he played in the U.S. late in his career. On the other hand, the list included two jockeys and three horses.2
Regardless, the list is helpful for at least one purpose. While it is painfully limited in scope and perspective, for those sports it does cover, it successfully identifies athletes who have absolutely and inarguably transcended their professions. The top seven were as follows:
- Michael Jordan
- Babe Ruth
- Muhammad Ali
- Jim Brown
- Wayne Gretzky
- Jesse Owens
- Jim Thorpe
While one can quibble with the order (and the omissions of other worthy contenders like the aforementioned Pele and the more recent Tiger Woods), it’s hard to argue with the inclusion of each of these greats in the top of their respective stratospheres. Or maybe, and this is the real point, they don’t even belong in their respective stratospheres but rather the mesospheres or thermospheres of their sports.
There’s something about each of them that cannot be quantified or pinned down. An air of timelessness. An aura of invincibility. A hint of this-guy-was-born-to-do-historic-things-and-even-he-knows-it-ness. Ali’s unwavering swagger. Jordan’s ruthlessness. Thorpe’s never before seen versatility. Owens’ gigantic balls (metaphorically speaking, I think). Ruth’s sense of his own gravitas. If you were lucky enough to watch these guys, you knew you were watching somebody who was more than historically relevant, but rather somebody who would define his era.
There’s also something about each of them that can be quantified. Winning. Those seven, plus the other worthy peers like Nicklaus, all had their careers highlighted with huge victories at the “right” moments. Winning at Torrey Pines is nice for Tiger, but it was feats like a record setting day at the U.S. Open that launched him into the pantheon. Owens’ world records in college were great, but it was his showcase performance on Hitler’s global stage that made him mythical.
This is not to say that any athlete who comes through in huge moments gets granted this status, of course. Christian Laettner, Bill Mazeroski, Mike Eruzione, and, now, Mario Gotze are all fine athletes in their own right, but their clutch wins are only part of the equation. Unfortunately for some athletes, that small part of the equation can loom very large in the minds of many people.
Smash cut back to Messi.
Many, many times in the last six to eight years, I have thought of Messi as being on a trajectory to reach the heights of those players above. In my mind, he has. He has set goal scoring records, has helped revolutionize the modern game with FC Barcelona, and has became the first man to ever win the FIFA Ballon d’Or four times3 (with two second place finishes and a third place finish to boot). He has absolutely dominated in club competition, and has won trophies at that level. He has an air of historical untouchability that is unshared by Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis “Dentures” Suarez, Neymar, and any other current top player you want to throw into the mix. Even at this World Cup, his clutch touches brought his country through the group stages with three straight wins, and his passing (including his assist to Angel di Maria) and chances created kept them in the driver’s seat for much of the tournament until Gotze splattered his gorgeous catch-and-release into the back of the net. Messi is an all timer. Anyone who says that the singular blemish on his resume (the lack of a World Cup trophy) prevents him from being included on the proverbial pedestal is either OCD or is actively trying to nitpick.
My biggest reason for believing that this is true was showcased in the first half of the Germany/Argentina final. On a botched header pass by (normally buttermilky smooth) Toni Kroos, world class Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain received the ball by himself in Germany’s zone with a straight shot toward goal. Wildman goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had some degree of position on the play, but most will agree that this goal was Higuain’s to lose. And lose it he did. He mis-struck the ball ever so slightly, and the chance was lost. (Not to pile on Higuain, who had the key goal against Belgium and who was completely obliterated by a charging Neuer later in the Germany final). Had Higuain sealed the deal, as he probably would 60-70% of the time, the game would have taken on an entirely different complexion and Argentina certainly could have ended up victorious. Unfortunately for Messi, Higuain did not seal the deal (although he will probably not have trouble doing so in Rio tonight).
Summed up succinctly, my reason for believing that Messi haters are wrong is that so much of the success of the player of a team sport is beyond their control, and is essentially random or arbitrary in relation to a specific player. Why should Higuain’s colossal error determine Lionel Messi’s legacy?
The greatest example of this phenomenon is also one of my favorite sports moments ever. In 2008, when Michael Phelps was chasing his seemingly impossible eight gold medals in eight events, the hotly anticipated 4×100 meter freestyle was scheduled as his second event. The 4×100 free is always hotly anticipated, even without crazy endeavors like Phelps’, because it is fast and it is furious and it is a showcase of many of the rock stars of swimming. The pounding of the freestyle stroke has a visual tenacity to it that simply captures the casual viewer’s excitement better than any other stroke. And in that particular race, the field was loaded. In addition to other contenders was the French team, considered favorites by many, with scud missile Alain “The Horse” Bernard as the anchor leg.
Phelps swam the first leg extremely well. In fact, his 47.51 seconds was an American record for the 100 meter freestyle. However, the Americans’ second and third legs were caught by the French, and by the time the anchor legs were diving in, the French had built up more than half a body length lead for Bernard. This would be concerning in most races, but was especially so on this occasion because Bernard happened to be the world record holder in the event. The anchor for the American team was ancient 32 year old Jason Lezak. Surely, all was lost.
You know the rest. Lezak dove in with a head of steam, and then went on a rampage. He methodically started catching up with Bernard on the first pool length as tension began to rise, and on the home stretch, he found an even higher gear and managed to nip Bernard by 0:00.8, and in doing so, clocked the fastest 4×100 relay leg in the history of swimming. With the help of Lezak’s heartstopping heroics, Phelps was able to secure his eight goals and march on to Olympic immortality.4
Or, for our purposes, we should focus on the fact that Phelps was only able to secure his eight golds because of Lezak’s heroics. If Phelps gets the benefit of Lezak’s superhero mother-lifting-a-car-off-her-baby performance, then Messi sure as hell shouldn’t get the detriment of Higuain’s miss and whatever other shortcomings by his Albiceleste compatriots over the years.
If you need Messi to win a World Cup to be a legend in your book, then you’re missing the point. Enjoy his singular talent. For his legacy, start looking at what amazing accomplishments Messi has made, and stop pretending to focus on what a mess he has made.
- No, the later filming of supplementary episodes on Pele and Mia Hamm do not rectify these insane exclusions.
- Literally. 1948 Triple Crown champ Citation was #97, early 1920s dominator Man O’ War was #84, and the “tremendous machine” from 1973, Secretariat, clocked in at #35, well ahead of the likes of #55 Mario Lemieux, #60 Walter Johnson, and #76 Barry Sanders, and SIXTY-FIVE slots ahead of Jack Johnson. Oy.
- In 2010, the Ballon d’Or award merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award. Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, and Marco van Basten all won the Ballon d’Or thrice, with van Basten also winning the WPOY in one of those years. Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo each won the WPOY award thrice, with each of them also winning the Ballon d’Or in overlapping years (Zidane once, Ronaldo twice). Messi is the first to win either award (now merged) in four different years.
- Damn was that race amazing…