BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Some World Cups are identified in history not by location, controversy or legacy but by the name of a single individual whose indelible mark defined soccer's greatest event.
It happened in 1958 when a teenage Pele announced himself to the world and again in 1986 as Diego Maradona carried Argentina on his shoulders. It occurred two more times, in 1998 with Zinedine Zidane willing France to victory and in 2002 with Ronaldo (the Brazilian one) taking a ludicrous haircut and a relaxed attitude all the way to glory.
If it is to happen here again in Brazil 2014, one man is left with the chance to do it, one player with the world at the tips of his twinkling feet.
The man is Lionel Messi. And this World Cup is his for the taking.
Individual ownership of a sporting collective is a largely American concept. It is driven by the need for a single, estimable and – let's face it – marketable name: Jordan's Bulls, Favre's Packers, Jeter's Yankees.
However, Messi's burden to deliver Argentina a world championship is more similar to the pressure LeBron James experienced before winning NBA titles with the Miami Heat. James had achieved plenty of individual success but had yet to accomplish the one feat that ultimately measures the magnitude of an all-time great's legacy. (Somewhat fittingly, LeBron will attend Sunday's World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro to witness the crowning of the next world champion.)
But unlike LeBron, Messi can't marshal a game as one of just 10 athletes on the hardwood. A soccer player, however great, is still just one of 22, and there has never been a man alive who could take 10 stiffs for teammates and lead them to victory at world-class level.
But there is a place for individual brilliance to turn a World Cup, provided it is backed up by a solid infrastructure. That is the situation Messi finds himself finally with Argentina, a superb supporting cast giving him the space and tools to shine.
Ahead of the semifinals, in which Brazil faces Germany in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday and Argentina meets the Netherlands on Wednesday in Sao Paulo, Messi steps towards potential destiny. He is set up with the opportunity to be the determining factor in a final four between evenly matched foes.
There is a growing perception that this is Messi's tournament to lose, presumably on the basis that, with Cristiano Ronaldo long since eliminated and Neymar knocked out by a Colombian knee, he is the only iconic global superstar left in the event. More accurately, it is Messi's to win.
Argentina will like its chances of coping with the lively and speedy Netherlands attack, spearhead by Arjen Robben's fleet of foot and Robin van Persie's drive. The matchup could, like tense semifinals often are, develop into a tight and tactical battle in the sort of arena where a flash of individual brilliance makes the difference.
Tricks, with a productive aim, are the tools of Messi's trade. The requirement for a moment of genius is right in his wheelhouse.
Argentina has long targeted this World Cup on the soil of its hated soccer rival as the one to signal its return to the top. Its campaign is the Messi show, of course, but Alejandro Sabella's team has a bunch of blue-collar types who don't need all the credit. Like Javier Mascherano, the holding midfielder who does all the dirty work in front of the back four, and Gonzalo Higuain, who showed a poacher's edge and reacted instantly to swivel home the only goal against Belgium in the quarterfinal.
Players like that need monitoring, to the extent that an opposing game plan focused too heavily on Messi is almost certainly doomed. That is why the little maestro has had some more freedom at this tournament and he has capitalized on it with four goals and a crucial assist late in the round of 16 against Switzerland.
Up in the raucous reaches at this World Cup's stadiums, where an invading army of Argentina fans situates itself to scream and cheer in nervous anticipation, Messi's performances have been a source of delight and promoted a sense of potentially impending triumph.
This is the World Cup that Argentina wants and, heading into its first semifinal in 24 years, knows that the time is now. It is mightily hard for South American teams to excel when the tournament is in Europe (Pele's Brazil at Sweden 1958 was the only triumph), and in four years time in Russia, Messi may be just past his peak.
It might be now or never, but it certainly won't be easy. Argentina's opponents, the Netherlands, have kept on rolling after smashing Spain 5-1 in their opening game, surviving a late comeback against Mexico and a tense penalty shootout against Costa Rica.
Argentina is the favorite to win it all largely because, in Messi, it has a talent that no other team in the tournament can boast.
There is still a long way to go until the champion is crowned and, inevitably, some pitfalls and challenges lie in wait. But Messi knows it is these moments, these tasks, and these late-round matchups on the biggest stage of all where the reputation of soccer's eternal greats is cast.
Like Pele. Like Maradona. And, if he is up to the task, like Lionel Messi.
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- World Cup 2014