As the undisputed king of football, Leo Messi has already secured his place in the game’s history. La Liga champion? Check. Copa del Rey winner? Check. Champions League winner? Check. European Footballer of the Year? Been there. FIFA World Player of the Year? Done that.
But all the accolades don’t seem to be enough for some pundits to consider Messi to be the greatest of all time. The critics argue Messi isn’t Messi without his Barcelona buddies by his side. Put on the Albicelestes colours and his magic disappears. To be the best, they argue, requires winning the one trophy that has been held above all others – the FIFA World Cup. Win that, Leo, and the debate will be over.
His quest begins again this Saturday, when South America kicks off qualifiers for Brazil 2014. And make no mistake: if Messi is to be a World Cup winner, getting there won’t be easy. The CONMEBOL qualification tournament is regarded as the toughest in the world, agrueling three-year cycle in which every South American team competes in home and home round robin tournament. The top four automatically qualify, with the fifth place team going to a playoff round against an Asian team. There are no easy matches in South American qualifying anymore, no Faroe Islands, Maldives, or St. Lucia’s to beat up on. Every match is war.
Don’t believe me? Check out the semi-finalists from this year’s Copa America: Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. No Argentina, nNo Brazil… and no gimmes. Every game will be tight, physical and challenging. At the end of a South American qualifier, the players look as if they were in a rugby match, not a football match.
For any player, the World Cup is the ultimate prize. To win it as an Argentine in Brazil would be even sweeter. For Lionel Messi to lift the trophy, he will have to go through football hell. That is the high price of immortality.