Neil Humphreys: The World Cup needs Messi
Little genius' quest will light up grubby Russia
Jorge Sampaoli was right. Football owed the World Cup to Lionel Messi.
The Argentina coach said as much on the eve of Messi beating Ecuador 3-1 to guarantee his country's ticket to Russia next year.
One man really did defeat a nation. The G.O.A.T. left his opponents bleating. Messi monstered Ecuador.
He put the "Greatest Of All Time" debate to bed a long time ago. So his astonishing hat-trick, ensuring Argentina's first victory in Ecuador since 2001, was the latest window dressing from the sartorial artist.
The first goal settled nerves after the hosts had taken an early lead. His second killed the contest. His third was straight out of the Messi copybook.
His ridiculous finishes are now so commonplace, he's plagiarising himself.
Any run-of-the-mill superstar can conjure the odd comic-book strike. Only Messi makes the magical almost mundane.
Of course, it isn't and never was, but his startling ability to make the extraordinary appear ordinary is the reason we should all bow at this man's altar in gratitude.
A World Cup without the greatest player in the world isn't a World Cup, not when he's still scoring daft goals like this.
For his hat-trick, he sold more dummies than a mannequin manufacturer and drifted towards the box. The angle was tight and shrinking. The keeper was already on his way.
With no backlift and no margin for error, Messi scooped his effort over the keeper's outstretched hand and into the net. He spotted a flight path beyond the scope and vision of just about every top-tier footballer.
His hat-trick took him to 21 Conmebol World Cup qualifying goals, overtaking Hernan Crespo's previous record of 19.
Messi doesn’t owe a World Cup to Argentina. Football owes a World Cup to Messi. He’s the best player in history.Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli, after Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick in their 3-1 win over Ecuador to secure World Cup qualification
But it's crass to talk statistics when it comes to Messi, like discussing how many litres of paint Michelangelo slapped on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To focus on the minutiae misses the point entirely.
The Sistine Chapel exists for our pleasure. So does Messi.
That's why football owed him a World Cup. He has earned the right to dabble one more time on the biggest canvas available for his artistic form.
He's moved further into the uncertain territory of Diego Maradona now, an elevated position that is both a blessing and a curse.
He's blessed with the ability to beat Ecuador on his own. He's cursed to be lumbered with international also-rans that lean on him to beat Ecuador on his own.
Since the last World Cup, where Messi guided a cautious Argentina to the final, the Albiceleste have gone through three coaches and 57 players.
The stagnating South Americans rotated feverishly to find reliable artisans to serve their master craftsman.
They largely failed, a harsh reality underscored by the do-or-die significance of the Ecuador game. No Messi hat-trick, no World Cup for Argentina; an unthinkable scenario just four years ago, when they took their final against Germany into extra time.
With Sergio Aguero injured, the lumbering Dario Benedetto was thrown up front. Playing ahead of Messi, the 27-year-old from Boca Juniors might as well have been the mascot, such was the obvious gulf in quality between teammates.
If Angel di Maria and Messi can rekindle past glories, with reliable support from Marcos Acuna as a left wing-back, and form and fitness return to the likes of Aguero and Paulo Dybala, Argentina may do justice to their leading man.
But Messi's importance to his nation is perhaps second to the tournament itself.
Russia 2018 will be played out beneath the grubbiest of clouds. Corruption allegations and organised hooliganism are likely to tarnish an event that already evokes a sense of trepidation.
A little Messi can go a long way in illuminating the dark shadows that'll hang over Vladimir Putin's pet project.
And yet, just 48 hours ago, there was the very real possibility of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo missing out, as Argentina and Portugal stood on the brink of elimination.
In the end, both nations qualified with impeccable timing.
The World Cup needs both men, but Messi's inclusion is the real cause for celebration. He remains the superior footballer with the better storyline.
A short, stocky Argentinian once tied the ball to his left boot and kept it there until he'd lifted the trophy.
In 1986, Maradona rose above the mediocrity that surrounded him and fulfilled his World Cup destiny.
Messi has gloriously earned himself one final shot at doing the same.