Messi's last chance
Argentina star will be greatest footballer of all time if he leads his country to World Cup glory
Gerard Pique once said that Cristiano Ronaldo was the best of the humans, but Lionel Messi was an extraterrestrial.
Pique, the Barcelona defender, was right.
Messi's presence did seem otherworldly, an alien who crash-landed in Argentina and was scooped up by Spanish guardians. He possessed powers beyond ordinary folks, as long as he kept on his Barcelona jersey.
When he swopped his club costume for the colours of his country, Messi's magnificence was somehow muted on the loudest stage.
The World Cup confirmed his mortality. He was just a man, a first footballer among equals.
He still can't quite escape the asterisk, the "nearly man" tag, the sense of "almost, but not quite". He's the world's greatest player, but he's never been the greatest player at the World Cup. He hasn't even been close.
Brazil offers the final breakthrough. Messi turns 27 during the tournament. This is arguably his last chance to outrank them all.
Argentina's little genius is already on the podium, but he still looks up at Pele and Diego Maradona, not because they were blessed with superior talent - they weren't - but because they won the World Cup.
The tournament does more than separate men from boys; it distinguishes men from Pique's extraterrestrials.
Pele peaked in 1970. Maradona was made in 1986. Their club careers didn't always scale the heights of their contemporaries, namely George Best, Alfredo di Stefano, Johan Cruyff and Michel Platini.
But Pele and Maradona reached Everest. In 1970 and 1986 respectively, they wept, literally, for there were no more worlds to conquer. Everything else was immediately dwarfed in comparison; lesser achievements worthy of respect, but not reverence.
Messi still has one more mountain to climb. He will hope this is third time lucky.
In 2006, he was the new kid on Barcelona's block, recovering from injury and not quite ready to be entrusted with the keys of his country's kingdom.
By 2010, Messi defied the naked eye and computer game pixels. He did things beyond the capabilities of PlayStation footballers.
His dribbling, perpetual foot-prodding technique confounded scientists. Human feet were not supposed to move that fast. His incessant tapping belonged to a different species, seemingly stolen from a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
POETRY IN MOTION
He was poetry in motion. The only man who had previously moved with such effortless style, speed and upper body strength happened to be his manager at South Africa 2010.
But Maradona's muddled tactics favoured Messi in possession, but left him isolated whenever Argentina lost the ball.
Their top-heavy approach appeared impressive in the group stages, but was relatively easy to break down when the resourceful Germans simply tipped the game's pattern in the other direction like a playground see-saw.
Argentina were victims of an avalanche. Messi could only look on from afar as his exposed teammates crumbled to a 4-0 defeat. The obstacle proved the end of the road for Maradona. His heir to the genius throne would have to wait for redemption.
Sublime club seasons passed and superlatives were swiftly exhausted as Messi's supermarket dash saw him sling six league titles, three Champions League crowns, two Copa del Reys, two Club World Cups, two European Super Cups and three Ballon d'Or trophies into the heaving trolley.
The records started to get silly. He became Barcelona's all-time scorer at 24 and knocked in an unassailable 86 goals in the calendar year of 2012.
Oh, and he had an average, out-of-sorts, injury-affected season in the Catalan side's most recent trophy-less campaign. He scored a "paltry" 28 goals in 30 league appearances and notched 41 in all competitions.
Messi's figures entertain statisticians, but he wants to push them to the fringes. They are an elite footballer's footnotes. The World Cup drives the narrative.
For the first time in Messi's international career, Argentina's stars have aligned in a tidy 4-3-3 formation that has been fortified by pragmatic coach Alejandro Sabella. Where they were once reckless under Maradona, they are now resolute.
Niggling injury concerns remain over Sergio Aguero and pivotal midfielder Fernando Gago, but they have been fortuitously drawn in a relatively easy Group F with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria.
With a familiar climate in their home continent, this is Argentina's best opportunity to finally realise the potential first witnessed when Messi, Gago, Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta won the Under-20 World Cup in 2005.
And it is Messi's moment to surpass the immortals.
He already shares a pedestal with Pele and Maradona. Their prodigious talents unite them. They are separated only by the World Cup.
So an Argentina victory comes with a confirmation. Messi would be the greatest footballer of all time.
MESSI THE LEADER
"The leader is the captain, who is Messi, and everyone is behind him. It is accepted that he is our standard-bearer, our example."
- Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella (above), on his skipper
A STRONGER MESSI
"I'm not worried about Messi. He looked good whenever I saw him. When a club like Barcelona, who are used to winning, lose, then people get upset. But experiences like that make you stronger."
- Sabella, on Messi's form
MESSI THE MATCH-WINNER
"Yes, why not? We have Messi, the best footballer on earth, in our side. He led us to the top in the qualifiers from the most difficult zone (Conmebol) with matches to spare."
- Man City striker Sergio Aguero (above), on whether Argentina can win the World Cup
OTHERS WHO COULD SHINE
Here are some of Lionel Messi's main rivals for Player-of-the-Tournament honours...
CRISTIANO RONALDO (PORTUGAL)
On current form, he's the world's best player. The winger benefits from Paulo Bento's 4-3-3 attacking line-up. The only drawback is he has to overcompensate for Luis Nani on the other flank.
LUIS SUAREZ (URUGUAY)
His countrymen are not up to his level, few players are, and Uruguay are not helped by a tough group with Italy and England. But if he comes close to replicating his Liverpool consistency, group qualification could be just the beginning.
In truth, his hype superseded his performances for Barcelona last season, but there is a sense of a date with destiny in his homeland. Still only 22, he has matured quickly through his La Liga apprenticeship. He must form a cogent link with Oscar to truly thrive.
ANDRES INIESTA (SPAIN)
A throwback to an almost distant era of precise passing tiki-taka, the 30-year-old Barca veteran represents his country's only chance of sustained success. If age does not whither him, he can dictate performances like Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012.
EDEN HAZARD (BELGIUM)
The brightest thoroughbred among the dark horses, Chelsea's inverted winger is ready to explode in Rio. He cuts in from the left with the lethal precision of a parang.
BLAISE MATUIDI (FRANCE)
With little fuss or fanfare, the PSG midfielder is slowly evolving into the Yaya Toure of his generation. A real French connection, everything goes through him in Didier Deschamps' preferred 4-3-3. A monster of a man, he could rule central midfield for club and country for years to come.
RANK OUTSIDER: ROSS BARKLEY (ENGLAND)
Paul Gascoigne did it at Italia 90 and, well, you've got to have a dream, haven't you?