- Argentina’s Lionel Messi is already an all-time great
- Greatness has never depended on winning a World Cup
Lionel Messi is a great player. Indeed, he is an all-time great at the age of 26. Yet, you still hear some suggest that “he needs a World Cup” to cement that status. As the little Argentinian begins his third World Cup campaign, I have three words by way of response: Marco van Basten.
Many magazines and web sites have wiled away the time before this World Cup by publishing lists of their top 100 World Cup players and all-time World Cup dream teams. One player – always a fixture in any collection of the world’s greatest players of all time – was conspicuous by his absence. That man was the three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Marco van Basten. The reason? He stank out the one World Cup in which he competed.
Van Basten was unquestionably the world’s greatest striker as the 1990s began. In 1988, he dominated the European Championship in West Germany, scoring a hat-trick to eliminate England, the winner in the last moments of a stellar semi-final in Hamburg against the hosts, and an audacious, half-believable volley from the bounds of impossibility against the best goalkeeper in the world, Rinat Dasaev, in the final. Thanks largely to his brilliance, Holland finally won a major title.
Two European Cups with Milan followed and van Basten established himself as the most feared predator in world football. Sadly, injury curtailed him, prematurely ending his effective career by 1993. His only World Cup was the Italian misadventure endured by a warring Dutch side in 1990. They never really turned up, hobbled by an injury to the great Ruud Gullit and internecine warfare involving any number of Dutch coaching celebrities.
Yet, despite that blot, nobody disputes the former Ajax man’s greatness. His record speaks for itself. He didn’t need to win a World Cup to be remembered. In his case, he didn’t need to even perform well in a World Cup. His exploits in the European Championship with Holland and in the European Cup with Milan left a permanent, indelible impression of ever-lasting greatness.
Of course, Holland’s greatest player, Johan Cruyff, didn’t win a World Cup either. He did, however, have a very good World Cup, when he was the star of the 1974 edition in West Germany.
In the absence of the opportunity to win a European Championship, Messi really just needs to play well at a World Cup to do his talent justice. Winning it isn’t essential in determining his greatness. It’ll satisfy those who think you can compare one player from one era with another from another – and rank them – but that’s about it. Unless you don’t rate Marco van Basten…