Lionel Messi is an absurdly good footballer. Nobody has ever questioned that. Nobody could. Six Ballons d’Or speak for themselves.
What has long blighted Messi, however, is a lack of success on the international scene. Sure, winning all those individual accolades is great, but critics have pointed to the fact that he had never won anything with Argentina and his four Champions League successes came as part of some of the greatest club sides we have ever seen.
His ability, or perhaps inability, to win anything outside of the elite bubble that is (/was) Barcelona had some believing he cannot be the best player of all time, especially because other players in that very conversation have done that.
Cristiano Ronaldo willed Real Madrid to Champions League glory and then watched the team collapse without him, and he dragged a very average Portugal to success at Euro 2016 and the 2018/19 Nations League.
More importantly for Messi, the late Diego Maradona turned Argentina into the best side on the planet as they won the 1986 World Cup.
The Messi critics have always pointed out that it takes a special kind of player to translate club success to glory on the international stage, particularly for a country who most would agree aren’t always part of the elite, but he has finally shut them up.
As he dropped to his knees upon realising that Argentina had won Copa America 2021 in the early hours of Sunday morning, you could see just how much this meant to Messi. Decades of scepticism and disrespect could finally be put behind him. He had delivered for his country like everyone always demanded he did.
As Messi put it, his lack of international success was a ‘thorn’ in his career. It had been eating away at him since 2007, when he became the poster boy for Argentina and fell at the final hurdle of the Copa America, coincidentally against Brazil.
By answering the one question that has followed him for 14 years, Messi’s case for being the GOAT now has to be respected by even the most ardent Messi detractor. He’s matched Ronaldo’s success with Portugal. That’s a fact.
Unfortunately for Messi, those who complained about the lack of international success will now criticise the calibre of it instead.
The Copa America is undoubtedly the secondary prize for Argentina, the first being the World Cup. That’s the big one. The one that Maradona won.
Until Messi can replicate that success, there will always be critics who believe he cannot be seen as his country’s greatest player. Comparisons to Maradona aren’t going away, and truthfully, they’re never going to. Not until he wins the World Cup which, given he is 34 years old, may never happen.
Messi shouldn’t have to prove himself to anyone. If you’ve got eyes, you’ll know he is an otherworldly talent and one who deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
By lifting the Copa America trophy, Messi has moved one step closer to the legacy he deserves. Those questioning his lack of success on the international stage have been forced to crawl back into their cave. For now.
There will, however, be lingering scepticism, and unless he can pull off a miracle at next year’s World Cup, there’s nothing Messi can do about that.