Winning the 2018 World Cup for Cristiano Ronaldo is a luxury and a dream. For Lionel Messi, it is a necessity. Anything short of making it a reality would be devastating to the Argentine’s psyche and forever tarnish his legacy in his homeland.
The pressure Messi faces in Russia is from a different planet than the mental burden Ronaldo carries in Russia.
Messi faces the pressure of carrying Argentina, like Diego Maradona did in 1986, to World Cup glory — with Maradona watching in the flesh. Naturally, television cameras have become obsessed with the retired great’s every reaction, but Messi doesn’t have the support Maradona had in 1986.
Even more than being asked to carry his country on the pitch, the 31-year-old Messi is shouldering a burden even Ronaldo cannot relate to.
Already, Ronaldo led his country to its first-ever major international tournament trophy at the European Championship in 2016. Despite sitting out for the bulk of the final due to injury, Ronaldo is unequivocally celebrated at home and considered the greatest player in Portugal’s history — doubling Eusebio’s scoring output for Portugal helped win that argument.
Also working in Ronaldo’s favor, Portugal had never advanced past the semifinals of any major international competition until he joined the Iberian nation’s selection. CR7 doesn’t require a World Cup victory to attain the deserving respect and love of his countrymen and women. He already has that, and frankly, he already had that even before 2016.
Of course, winning the World Cup would not exactly be out of character for the 33-year-old Portuguese superstar, but Ronaldo’s pressure to perform at the World Cup is self-imposed and not nearly in the same realm facing Messi.
For Messi, the options are simple: win the World Cup or you’ve failed.
That fact became unavoidably evident after he came tantalizingly close to winning the World Cup in 2014. For Messi, even a trip to extra time in the final wasn’t enough, and it only further heightened the expectations and pressure entering Russia in 2018.
If Messi doesn’t win the World Cup, Argentina will never truly treat him with the adoration he deserves as a member of the sport’s all-time XI.
In Russia, Messi and Argentina haven’t looked like a side capable of winning a match, let alone the tournament. Argentina has looked like a wounded animal begging to be put down, rather than a ferocious monster instilling fear in opponents.
Truth be told, since the 2014 defeat to Germany, Messi in an Argentina shirt has been plagued by misery he wears on his sleeve as clearly as the blue and white stripes on his chest.
One may be the loneliest number, but even Willy Caballero’s error at the No. 1 position didn’t look as lonely as Argentina’s No. 10 by the end of Croatia’s 3-0 dismantling of the South Americans in the second group stage game.
The World Cup has always been a source of pressure and disappointment for Messi, but 2018 seems like a boulder of pressure that has been rolling down a hill for a dozen years with Messi unable to get out of its path.
In his introduction to the greatest tournament the sport has to offer, Messi and Argentina lost to Germany on penalties in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup. In 2010, Maradona took charge of the team, but again Germany knocked out Argentina, this time 4-0 in South Africa. In 2014, Mario Goetze scored in the final for Germany in extra time to hand Argentina its third straight World Cup defeat in Rio de Janeiro.
Tragically, the 2014 serenading chants of “Messi” have turned into the 2018 inaudible whispers of “Mercy.” Watching arguably the greatest player of all time through the first two matches has been excruciating. Whereas Messi has made a career of producing audibly involuntary reactions due to his genius, his first 180 minutes in Russia have produced inaudible groans of wasted brilliance.
Two matches into the tournament, Ronaldo appears like he’ll have a better World Cup than Messi, and Portugal winning the World Cup outright doesn’t seem nearly as implausible as Messi winning the World Cup. Still, falling in the final, semifinal, quarterfinal or even the round of 16 would not harm Ronaldo’s standing anywhere.
Ronaldo doesn’t have to carry the cross like Messi does.
Messi’s level of pressure at the World Cup is a different beast. Even a miraculous run to the final would not be enough for Messi to find peace. After three straight second-place finishes in the 2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa America and 2016 Copa America Centenario, second isn’t good enough for Messi.
And yet, Argentina’s only chance is Messi. Sadly, Javier Mascherano is 34 and plays his club football in China, Sergio Romero is injured, with 36-year-old Willy Caballero far from an upgrade in between the pipes and Angel Di Maria at 30 is not the same player that went to Brazil on the heels of the 2014 Champions League Final Man of the Match award.
Argentina’s only hope is the magician conjuring the spell to turn those inaudible prayers back into the familiar chants when Argentina faces Nigeria on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.
Of course, the story wouldn’t end there. Messi would be required to repeat his magic again, and again, and again and again. Anything less would result in the familiar phrase that argues he’s not Maradona.
And this is the perpetually propagating pressure that Messi is under until his World Cup ends, with only victory presented as an acceptable result but unfiltered failure the far more likely final outcome.
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