It was only a few hours before Lionel Messi’s Argentina was due to face Belgium in their quarter final that the news broke concerning the severity of Neymar’s injury; he is to be ruled out of the remainder of the World Cup with a fractured vertebrae. The poster boy, the talisman, Brazil’s (and, really, the world’s) diamond had been smashed by a nasty Colombian knee to the back. The tackle wasn’t outright vicious, but a raised knee, coming in at that speed, is not how a professional footballer attempts to win the ball. The entire host nation is in mourning, and it was noticeable that, despite the knock out win over the Colombians, celebrations were muted at best. Brazil was shaken by the loss of Neymar. And so, preparing for his own nation’s knock out clash, Lionel Messi stands alone as the man to define this World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo was hamstrung by a bad team, Eden Hazard has been bafflingly subdued, and the Germans and Dutch are more teams based around the collective than an individual. Though Argentina (as their coach has recently stressed publicly) is far from just Messi and 10 others, it has been Messi who has dragged them this far. He has made up for their suspect defence, he has scored late winners when they’ve been needed and it is he, now that Neymar has been rubbed out, who can take control of the final stages of this competition and lead his team to the Cup. The World Cup trophy depicts two figures holding up the Earth. Argentina need only one Atlas to hoist them up, and he already has shown he can do it.
When Spain, the ultimate ‘team’s team’ were eliminated, the narratives shifted to ones that were individually-fuelled. Teams were defined by their stars; Messi for Argentina, Neymar for Brazil, James Rodriguez for Colombia, Sanchez for Chile, Joel Campbell, Tim Cahill, and so on. And though these men have been singularly crucial in certain games, like Robben in the win over Spain, and Rodriguez in the win over Uruguay, only Messi has been consistently relied on by his team to be the star, and has consistently delivered. We need to remember a few things as well. Messi has been the world’s best player for a while, so every team playing Barcelona and Argentina know who to mark heavily. We saw in the quarter final against Brazil that James Rodriguez, sublime as he is, was marked out of the game by a physical Brazil side. They harried and barged him into relative obscurity for most of the match, and when he did affect it meaningfully with the penalty, it was too little, too late. He has to get used to this because, after such a breakout tournament, a bright red target is permanently on his back now. Messi has had the same target on his back for the last 5 years at least, and has learned to thrive in spite of it. So with this automatic handicap, Messi has still excelled, though, crucially, only at club level. Those who rail against Messi’s apparent supremacy, who get strangely annoyed at the accolades poured onto him, always point out the same thing to bolster their views; Messi is yet to impress at a World Cup. And it is true (not that this affects his being the world’s best player), he hasn’t had a fantastic, Maradona-level World Cup. Until this one. Potentially.
If, and it is a fairly big if, he can keep it up, he will break through the last barrier that blocks his way. Maradona single-handedly won the biggest prize in football for Argentina; Messi hasn’t done that yet (nobody mentions that no one else has either, but anyway). It is very much within the realm of imagination for Messi to score a goal or two tonight and beat a lukewarm Belgium. The Belgians have been thoroughly unimpressive, if effective, so far in Brazil. He then will face the prospect of either Costa Rica or the Netherlands, and neither team will look forward to lining up against Messi and the Argentinian front line. He is only three games away from lifting the cup aloft, and Messi has single handedly won three games in a row before. So not only is it more than feasible on the pitch, narratively the path is also clear. If there is a silver lining of Neymar’s injury for the neutral (because for any team potentially facing Brazil, no lining is needed, they’re overjoyed about the injury alone) it is that Messi now stands alone as the only remaining national superstar icon. There will never be a better time to take advantage of this. It is lonely at the top, but it sure beats sharing your seat.