Messi's chance to join Pele, Maradona

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring a goal against Bosnia during their World Cup Group F...

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring a goal against Bosnia during their World Cup Group F match at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, June 15, 2014. (MICHAEL DALDER/Reuters)

Kurtis Larson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:24 PM ET

RIO DE JANEIRO - Soccer's all-time greats rarely become synonymous with greatness.

Dutchman Johan Cruyff and Portugal's Eusebio were once-in-a-decade players -- as is Eusebio's countryman, Cristiano Ronaldo.

There are more all-time greats -- Northern Ireland's George Best and Liberia's George Weah -- who never appeared at a World Cup, the theatre at which greatness is bestowed.

In terms of soccer "greatness," two players sit high above the game's top names: Argentina's Diego Maradona and Brazil's Pele.

Come Sunday night here at Maracana Stadium another player will look to join soccer's master class. It's greatness.

Argentina's Lionel Messi has done everything else. He's the only footballer who needs a second Wikipedia page to list all of his accomplishments.

But in order to turn the game's master class into a trio, the world's best player must lead his teammates, his people, to a repeat of 1986 -- the year Maradona-led Argentina topped West Germany to lift the World Cup trophy.

Ahead of another World Cup final against the favoured Germans, Messi's countrymen have arrived in droves.

Argentina fans are sleeping in cars and pitching tints along the Copacabana beach just for a chance to potentially witness greatness in person.

They've already seen Messi achieve great things from a distance.

His goal-scoring records are unimaginable -- 91-goals in a calendar year, 50 goals in a La Liga season, most consecutive La Liga games (21) with a goal.

Until Messi burst onto the world scene, what he does on the ball was merely a figment of many imaginations.

He makes the opposition appear as though they're playing in slow-mo. He does things that are unlike anything this world has ever known.

But to join the aforementioned duo in the pantheon of soccer gods, the criteria has always been the same: To achieve greatness you have to perform on the world stage -- something Messi failed to do in 2006 and 2010.

This time around things have been different. While we haven't seen the best of the world's top player, Messi has been the difference in four of Argentina's six World Cup fixtures.

An opening group game against Bosnia and Herzegovina might have ended in a stalemate had Messi not completed a one-two before beating a pair of Bosnians and banging one in off the post.

Six days later, against a bunkering Iranian side, Messi took it upon himself in stoppage time to put the ball on his favoured left foot before striking a long-distance curler that broke the deadlock.

Against Nigeria it was more of the same with Messi providing two goals in a 3-2 win.

He played provider on Angel Di Maria's game-winner in a second-round match against Switzerland, too.

Not bad for a guy who hasn't been at his best here in Brazil -- a prevailing narrative that must change if Argentina is to beat the impenetrable Germans.

For the South Americans to lift the trophy at iconic Maracana Stadium, they'll need Messi to navigate through a German side without weakness. A side that just five days ago made Argentina's biggest rival, the host nation, look like children.

There are questions as to whether the world's best player is suffering from fatigue following an injury-plagued 2013.

Aside from the goals he has manufactured at this tournament, he hasn't been himself.

He has looked tired and stagnant during a tournament that hasn't seen his trademark 40-metre runs with the ball on a string.

He looks like a player who after giving everything for club and country for a decade is heading into the most important fixture of his career at less than 100%.

But these are also the moments when elite athletes rise to the occasion.

As a team, the Germans are far superior. Argentina won't win Sunday's final unless Messi regains the form that saw him claim those records a few years back.

If he does, the crux of this piece is no longer up for debate.

If Messi lights Sunday in front of 75,000 Brazilians, the 27-year-old will join those who have achieved soccer greatness.

There will be no more arguments as to whether Ronaldo or Neymar are in the same class as Maradona's successor.

Opportunities to vault great players into such an elite class are scarce.

If it happens, I'll be fortunate enough to say I was there.

TOP 5 NEVER TO WIN A WORLD CUP

1 Johan Cruyff, Netherlands

The Dutch midfielder helped his country to a second-place finish at the 1974 World Cup, claiming the Golden Ball at the tournament in the process. He was also named to FIFA's all-time World Cup team.

2 Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

One of the top players in the world over the last decade has appeared in three World Cups, making him the most-capped Portuguese player at the tournament.

3 Zico, Brazil

Led Brazil in three World Cups between 1978 and 1986, winning a bronze boot and being named to the tournament's all-star team in 1982.

4 Michel Platini, France

Competed in three World Cups for Les Bleus (1978, '82, '86), leading them to the semifinals in 1982 before falling to West Germany in a historical match.

5 Eusebio, Portugal

Only appeared at the 1974 World Cup, but scored nine time helping the Portuguese to a third-place finish.


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