NZME's award winning* football blog Goalmouth Scramble is back. Our rotating stable of football writers will offer daily hot takes on all the action from the World Cup in Russia. Today, Damien Venuto compares Lionel Messi's legacy with Andrew Mehrtens'.
Previously, on Goalmouth Scramble:
Near the end of regulation time in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens lined up, cocked back his prolific right foot and launched a drop goal attempt at the South African posts. The stadium heaved as the audience collectively held its breath, only to watch the ball float past the upright.
At the time, Mehrtens would've been unaware of the important role that moment would play in cementing his place as arguably the greatest All Black not to have won a Rugby World Cup. His legacy would become that of the runner-up rather than the champion.
As Argentina kicked off its campaign for the World Cup over the weekend, Messi had the stern, pale look of a man haunted by the spectre of having seen his future.
It was as though the corners of his mouth were weighed down by the expectation of the occasion. Despite all his strength and physical prowess, he seemed incapable of flexing his face into a smile. All the records accrued while playing for Barcelona seem utterly irrelevant as soon as Messi pulls the national shirt over his head.
The Argentinean maestro enters this tournament with a tally of three runners-ups medals from his last three international tournaments (two Copa Americas and one World Cup) and he is acutely aware that this tournament is possibly his last chance to prove that he's the greatest of all time.
This narrative of Messi's battle with his legacy is also the subject of an Adidas advertising campaign, which dubs him the GOAT (the Greatest of All Time) across stadium advertising. As if the pressure of competing against the world's best wasn't enough already, Messi is constantly reminded he's also battling against everyone who came before him.
Of course, no great story would be complete without a villain. And for everyone rooting for Messi, the enemy here is none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese captain revels in the role, going as far as even taunting Messi and his supporters. Over the weekend when he scored the first of his three goals against Spain, Ronaldo celebrated by scratching his chin – a clear reference to the fact that he's the GOAT rather than Messi. The arrogance, the gall and the showmanship all contrast Messi's quiet focus.
But as the commentator said during the match, the battle of the GOAT is leaning toward Ronaldo at the moment, who, after leading his country to the European Cup, kicked off his 2018 World Cup campaign with a hat-trick against Spain. Meanwhile, Messi's World Cup opener against Iceland started much the same way his 2016 Copa America ended: with a devastating missed penalty.
No doubt Messi would've given up dozens of club goals to score any of the three penalties he's missed for Argentina, much in the same way Mehrtens would've been happy to give up a few personal accolades to convert that infamous dropgoal attempt.
One advantage Mehrtens has over Messi, however, is that he didn't have to play out his career in the shadow of a giant. His legacy thief came long after he could do anything about it in the shape of Dan Carter, who would break many of his predecessor's records and then go on to play an integral role in winning the World Cup with the All Blacks.
In contrast, Messi's battle is being fought in reverse. His legacy as the GOAT is currently held by Diego Maradona, who tasted glory with both his club and national sides. And in what seemed an effort to remind the audience of what Messi was up against, the camera crew at the Iceland game turned their lenses to Maradona on numerous occasions. Hair slicked back and puffing on a cigar, Maradona cut the figure of the inappropriate uncle who makes a habit of attending every family event and insisting on sitting at the head of the table.
As long as Messi remains a runner-up with the national team, Maradona will retain his throne and Messi will – like Mehrtens – only be remembered as the greatest player of his generation not to have won a World Cup.
But maybe this isn't such a bad thing. Because if it came to choosing to become a cigar-wielding Maradonna or an ageing Mehrtens, the latter seems like the better – or at least healthier – choice.
*Goalmouth Scramble's 'award' was more of an inter-company acknowledgement in an email from 2012.