With the World Cup draw, an age-old question: does someone like Lionel Messi have to win a championship for his legacy?

I just embedded that video up top because it’s fun, and because it got about 33 million hits in about four days. It’s not really relevant at all to this post; Kobe Bryant has won a championship (five of ’em, in fact), and he was never at an age where people started to question if he would get one (drafted in ’96, and I believe he had his first one in ’00). Anyway, point being: here we go with the World Cup. I don’t follow international soccer closely, although I’ll probably end up watching every game I can of the World Cup (so I’m basically to soccer what most Americans are to the NHL). I’m not going to bore you with analysis of the different groups, because you can find that all over the Internet.

It seems like the twin storylines of this World Cup, even if neither nation wins, are Neymar (face of the host country) and Lionel Messi (face of world soccer, in some ways).

Messi will turn 27 during the World Cup (his birthday is in late June). Using simple math, that means his next World Cup shot (2018) will come around when he’s 31, then 35, then 39. He may not be playing in that last option, and also, his 35 year-old WC would be in Qatar as things stand now — perhaps not ideal for 35 year-old knees and general body functioning to play in 122-degree heat. Pele — the player Messi is probably most compared to historically — played in his last World Cup in ’70 (he was 30), and Brazil won. (Pele won three World Cups with Brazil.) Messi hasn’t won a World Cup — he has won Euro Championships. In the 2006 World Cup, he was on the bench for Argentina’s loss to Germany. In the 2010 World Cup, he was fairly dominant for stretches, but Argentina again fell to Germany, 4-0, in the quarters.

So here we have it: Messi probably has two potentially-dominant World Cups remaining in his career, and perhaps just this one. Cue the names for American fan context: Charles Barkley. Dan Marino. Patrick Ewing. Ted Williams. Yaz. (I don’t know how to spell Yaz’s full name.) Marcel Dionne. (OK, that was Canadian.) Karl Malone. And remember, as recently as summer 2011, we thought LeBron might be on that list:

This question has been endlessly debated in bars, guy group e-mail threads, and sports radio for years: for full legacy appreciation, does one need a championship? Obviously there’s a lot of potential answers. In the case of an individual athlete — i.e. one not playing a team sport — then I think there has to be a certain amount of hardware for any type of legacy discussion (think about Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, etc.) In a team sport, the goal isn’t individual accolades — there are individual awards, sure, but that’s not theoretically the goal. If individual achievement was the goal in a team sport, the entire concept on which we base the sanctity of sports would fall apart (“it teaches my child to be part of something bigger than him/herself”). I coached Little League for a year maybe 2-3 years ago. My team was f’n terrible but we did win one game in the playoffs, surprisingly (every team made the playoffs, so that in and of itself isn’t a huge deal). We played one team during the season and lost by mercy rule. The team had a starting pitcher who was also their cleanup hitter (common when you’re 10 or 11 to be the best at everything, especially relative to birthday). He struck out about 12 and hit two homers. It was terrible to be coaching in this game, especially because his parents literally could not give a shit about anything else their team was doing. They’d be texting, making calls, etc. when other guys hit. It was literally the definition of everything you want to claim is wrong with team sports or youth sports in America. That anecdote right there is individual accolades being more important than broader team success. When that happens, it’s terrible to watch — so hopefully we’ve established that the goal here is really a team doing well.

In terms of how team success impacts individual legacy? Well, if you asked me the greatest QB of all-time in the NFL, I would have Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw higher than Dan Marino, even though many of Marino’s statistics are superior. I’d have them higher because of the titles, honestly. Four Super Bowls is damn impressive. The QB doesn’t do everything, by any means, but to consistently set the offense up well in that high-stakes of a game and to do it four times? That’s impressive. That impacts the legacy. Now, Marino’s Dolphins teams weren’t always great, and nor were Barkley’s Sixers/Suns teams. It also should be noted that a lot of the NBA examples above ran into the Jordan buzzsaw (Ewing repeatedly in the East, Barkley in the Finals, Malone in the Finals, etc.) Ted Williams and Yaz were caught up in the target circle of baseball history. If Williams hadn’t suffered through not winning a championship, the Jimmy Fallon movie Fever Pitch could never have been made. Concessions, people. Concessions.

Does Messi need one? Again, it’s a two-sided argument (as all good ones are). If Messi doesn’t get one here, and doesn’t get one in Russia in 2018, and then fades away into retirement before or around Qatar, no one is going to come out and claim he wasn’t a top-five, top-ten guy all-time. I mean, look at the video immediately above. Or look at this one:

If you’re of the belief that God places certain people on Earth to do certain, very specific things, Lionel Messi might be the first argument you’d use (maybe Michael Jordan would be slightly higher for some; the evil answer to that question is El Chapo).

Messi will be in the discussion for “greatest soccer player of all-time,” but I do think it’s important for him to get a title to avoid that dreaded Marino/Ewing add-on: “greatest soccer player of all-time never to win a title.” He’s probably not going to be in a position to match Pele’s three World Cups, so throw that out. Diego Maradona has 1 World Cup, so that’s a logical tie (awkward).

As for whether he can do it? Again, I don’t know a ton about soccer, so I’m not in the business of analyzing the groups. I know that Germany is really good (or looked very good in 2010 and seemed young then), and I know that Brazil is the home country, which has to count for something. Then you’ve got Spain, who keeps winning everything of late (but is aging), and other African/South American countries (i.e. Uruguay) that aren’t always top of mind. I think of the World Cup like the NCAA Tournament in some ways: there, you need to win six in a row to get it. You don’t necessarily need to do that to win the World Cup, but it feels the same. You need to get hot and stay hot, even if you drop one in group play. As for odds, you’ve got this:

… and then this (Argentina at 5-1), this (Argentina 4-1), and this (Argentina 5-1). Anyway you cut the deck, Argentina is one of four main favorites with Brazil, Germany, and some combo of Spain/Belgium/France/Colombia. It truly will be a World Cup of destiny for Leo Messi. This could be the moment his legacy is completely defined. And to do it, he might have to go through his greatest contemporary rival:


One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be an interesting summer all over Brazil. I’m not entirely sure Messi “needs” a World Cup, but it would help silence anything that remains regarding him. I can’t wait to see it play out.

Ted Bauer