WHY MESSI WANTS TO WIN
The external view is that winning the World Cup would secure Messi's legacy. But is that how he sees it? What is motivating his own desire for glory in Russia this summer?
Picture the scene: it's Sunday 15 July at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, and a beaming Lionel Messi is lifting the Jules Rimet trophy high above his head after scoring a brilliant winner to give Argentina a thrilling victory over Brazil in the World Cup Final.
What do you think is going through his mind at this precise moment?
Do you think he is filled with patriotic fervour after leading Argentina to their first world title since 1986? Is he thinking of his family and the pride they must be experiencing? Is he feeling a sense of self-satisfaction at finally claiming the only major achievement – a senior international trophy – to have previously eluded him? Or is he overjoyed that he has just significantly strengthened the argument he should be considered the best player of all-time?
This is only hypothesising, of course, but we can be pretty sure that the last option – Messi primarily focussing on how his latest achievement makes him look in the eyes of other people – is by far the least likely.
Although Messi is famously guarded in interviews and we can therefore only really guess at his inner-most thoughts, everything we do know about him strongly suggests that his heart is set firmly and squarely upon collective trophies alone, and that any personal glory which happens to come his way as a result of those endeavours is merely incidental.
He has, for example, routinely eschewed any opportunity to claim that he is a better player than Diego Maradona, once stating that he will never surpass his compatriot predecessor “even in a million years.”
Messi has also always adopted a similar attitude towards his personal rivalry – which is probably more important in the eyes of outsiders than his own – with Cristiano Ronaldo, stating on one occasion: “It doesn’t matter if I’m better than Cristiano. It only matters if Barcelona are better than Real Madrid.”
Does that sound like a man whose spontaneous reaction to winning the World Cup would be to allow himself a self-regarding pause for thought upon the subject of how others are now perceiving him? Not really.
Focus on trophies, not self-glorification
In the context of last week’s Long Read, which considered the idea that Messi needs to win a World Cup before he can be widely considered the greatest footballer ever, this is quite an interesting subject to ponder.
As discussed in that feature, there can be no doubt that if Messi succeeds in inspiring Argentina to glory in Russia this summer, the first reaction of many millions of people all over the world will be to reassess their views on his status within the history of the sport. Newspaper headlines and social media streams would be in a frenzied rush to proclaim him as the greatest of all-time, eclipsing even Maradona and Pele, and decisively concluding the debate over whether Messi or Ronaldo is the better player.
In the event of an Argentina triumph that would be by far the most obvious narrative thread to pull out of the tournament, and one which would dominate our memories of both the event itself and Messi’s entire career for years to come. In the same way that Mexico ’86 will forever be remembered as the time when Maradona confirmed his timeless legendary status, Russia ’18 could be regarded by sporting history as the time when Messi surpassed him.
From the way he speaks about his status and fellow greats of the game, however, we can only surmise that Messi himself wouldn’t see it that way.
He could be lying, of course – while his mouth is telling us that he’s not interested in individual prizes or in comparing himself with other players and insisting that he only wants team success, deep down he might be silently thinking: ‘Of course I’m the best ever, and one day I’ll make all you doubting bastards believe it.’
But it doesn’t seem to be that way, partly from the words he says but also from the way he plays and the way he responds to certain events which would be tailor-made for a spot of self-glorification if he so desired.
Back in 2005, for example, when Messi scored the winning goal for Argentina’s Under 20 team against Nigeria in the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands, he celebrated by lifting his playing jersey to reveal a t-shirt paying tribute to his sister, nephews and cousin.
And when he surpassed Gerd Muller’s all-time calendar-year goalscoring record near the end of 2012, Messi’s first reaction was to turn to Andres Iniesta, the man who had provided the assist for the goal, and run towards him to offer thanks for the pass.
Even in those high-profile, high-achieving moments of rare personal glory, which many other players would have instinctively used to turn the spotlight upon themselves and their own greatness, Messi’s first thought was not ‘Look at ME!’. Instead, he immediately and instinctively turned his mind to other people: his family in 2005, and his teammate in 2012.
And, of course, this trait is also evident whenever he scores a goal through his famous ‘fingers pointing to the heavens’ celebration – a remembrance of his beloved grandmother, who passed away two decades ago but has still not been forgotten by the devoted grandson.
Ronaldo's thirst for personal glory
This outward-looking attitude, perhaps, is the greatest difference between Messi and Ronaldo.
Whereas Messi’s passion for winning the World Cup appears to be driven by a simple desire to win the World Cup purely for the sake of that achievement in itself and what it would mean for everyone around him, it’s a sure bet Ronaldo is very conscious that lifting the trophy would strengthen his case for being considered the greatest player of all time.
In the heat of the moment in the split seconds immediately netting after a World Cup-winning goal, would Ronaldo run to his Portugal teammate and thank him for the pass? Would he reveal a personal message to a loved one? Or would he head straight for the nearest television camera for a quick burst of narcissistic muscle flexing? We all know which is the most likely.
This is not a criticism of Ronaldo. People can be motivated by whatever aims and ambitions they want – in fact, the source of our motivation is not something we usually have much power within ourselves to choose or control, with our deepest desires reflecting on an unconscious level who we unavoidably and truly are.
If Ronaldo is inspired by the opportunity to be showered with personal awards and accolades as opposed to Messi’s insatiable appetite for collectively earned trophies, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Ronaldo is not harming anyone by chasing personal glory above all else, and a major reason – probably the biggest reason – for his the spectacular career he has enjoyed is his unquenchable need to be regarded by other people as the best player in the world.
Ronaldo’s demand for external recognition and approval simply reflects his personality, and it has played a major role in making him the fantastic player he undoubtedly is. By expressing those ambitions directly and openly rather than attempting to hide them, he is only being true to himself.
There is much to admire in his intense devotion to self-improvement, and there’s no reason we should necessarily believe that Messi’s more team-oriented attitude is inherently better or worse than Ronaldo’s stronger focus on his own personal objectives. They are just two different routes towards the same outcome: scoring goals and winning games.
For most people, though, Messi’s mindset is more appealing, and probably goes a long way towards explaining why he is regarded with greater affection by the majority of neutral football followers and prompts less vitriol among opposition fans (in Spain, Messi is only really jeered by fans of Real Madrid, local rivals Espanyol and occasionally Valencia; Ronaldo gets it pretty much everywhere he goes).
Winning The Big One
Anyway, let's get back to the point. Let’s reimagine that scene in Moscow in mid-July, when Messi is lifting the trophy high above his head while tears of joy roll down his face.
That moment would mean so much to Messi for many reasons. Firstly, he is a proud and patriotic Argentine, and the knowledge that he has helped his country end their 32-year wait for another World Cup would move him greatly.
He would also feel joy for his teammates, many of whom have been close personal friends for years. The likes of Messi, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia and Angel Di Maria have endured many sufferings together, and triumphing with that group would be an understandably emotional experience.
Of course, Messi would also find deep personal satisfaction in that moment. And after being subjected to a heavy load of nasty personal criticism from many of his fellow Argentines during the early stages of his international career, there would also be a sense of vindication.
Mainly, though, Messi would be overcome simply by the thrill of winning the World Cup – a tournament which remains, despite its flaws and the overall dominance of club football, the most prestigious event in football. Even FIFA’s litany of corruption has not been enough to dim the glow of the Jules Rimet trophy, which is still, after all these years, The Big One.
And the fact that it would also make millions of people reconsider their opinions on Messi’s greatness? That would matter to him a little bit. But not much.
What do you think? What will motivate Messi this summer? Join the conversation on Twitter