A World Cup win is career-defining. You think of great players like Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, and Iniesta, and you’re lasting image of them invokes winning the World Cup. On the same note, you think of players like Baggio, Cruyff, and Zico, and perhaps you’re inclined the remember how they failed to win the worlds cup despite being amongst the most gifted players of all time. There are three players that more than any other players at this World Cup, this World Cup will be legacy-defining. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar have been three of the best footballers of the last decade, making them all three of the most recognizable people on the planet and idolized by millions. But for all three of them, this looks likely to be their last World Cup. Only one of them can win the tournament, the question is, who? In order of who needs to win it the least to who needs to win it the most, this is the tale of the tale for three players who have helped to define their generation.
3rd, Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
Probably the most high-profile player of all time, at his peak he was almost without a doubt the mist athletic footballer of all time. Speed, strength, power, technique, skill, and finishing, there was literally he couldn’t do. He has proven himself in the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A, winning leagues, champions leagues, and a list of personal accolades as long as a giraffe’s neck. But it’s 2022, and Ronaldo is thirty-seven years old.
It’s clear to everyone (except Ronaldo) that this is the twilight of his career, and this is without a doubt his final World Cup, his time with Portugal has perfectly encapsulated an era in Portuguese football that has seen the country transform from a second tier UEFA nation to European Championship finalists (2004), World Cup semi-finalists (2006), European Champion winners (2016) and UEFA Nations League champions (2019). Before the era in which Ronaldo played for the national team, Portugal qualified for just three of a possible eleven European Championships, and three of a possible seventeen World Cups. It’s easy to forget that before the turn of the century, this wasn’t a powerhouse nation the way it is today. Portugal has never had the same manifest destiny-like culture to win the World Cup as countries like Argentina and Brazil, in fact to many in Portugal, winning the European championship was an accolade that many never even thought was possible a generation ago!
Ronaldo will always (you’d think) be the greatest Portuguese player of all time, his legacy in his country is secure. It’s also more than likely true at this point to say he’s the greatest European footballer of all time. Which is the key difference between him, Neymar, and Messi – he has the least to prove at this point. It goes without saying that he will desperately want to win the World Cup, everyone does and this is probably the best Portugal team he’s been a part of going into a World Cup since the team that made the semi-final in 2006. A win will put him above Messi in the eye of many in terms of who was the better player, which is more than enough motivation for Ronaldo, a man driven by immense personal ambition to end his international career on the highest of highs.
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2nd, Neymar – Brazil.
Despite being only thirty, the consensus seems to be that this will indeed be Neymar’s last World Cup. It’s been a bittersweet World Cup career so far for Brazil’s talisman, filled with goals, highlights, and masterful skill but also injury and heartbreak. In the 2014 World Cup which Brazil hosted, Neymar practically carried a very average Brazil side on his back with four goals and an assist to take his side to the semifinals for the first time since 2002! Unfortunately, he suffered a tournament-ending injury in the quarterfinal, leaving him sidelined for Brazil’s emotionally charged infamous 7-1 loss to Germany. In 2018, Neymar returned with two goals and two assists, but Brazil was once again prematurely eliminated in the quarterfinal against Belgium.
No one can accuse Neymar of not showing up for Brazil when he’s on the pitch, in 122 appearances, he has 75 goals for his country, putting him just shy of the record for most goals ever for Brazil. But perhaps he should have more silverware for A Seleção. Neymar has never been part of a Copa América side, and his two trophies for Brazil – the 2013 Confederations Cup and 2016 Olympic Gold medal have both been on home soil. The problem for Neymar is that he plays for Brazil, for so many other countries he would probably be considered the best player in that country’s history. But Brazil has a list of iconic World Cup-winning players as long as your arm, Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Carlos Alberto, and the list goes on! Brazil and winning the World Cup go hand in hand, for Neymar to be on their level, he has to win a World Cup. Sócrates was an outstanding player for Brazil and is still loved around the world and especially in his homeland, but ultimately he’s remembered as being part of the best Brazil team (1982) to never win the World Cup, something that Neymar could also potentially be remembered for.
It’s been twenty years since Brazil have won the World Cup, the longest they’ve ever gone without winning (since winning their first) is twenty-four years and it seems unbelievable that Brazil could once again go that long without a World Cup. Should Brazil once again fail to win the World Cup, then Neymar will go down as the most talented player in a barren spell for international footballs greatest side, potentially making him the poster boy (rightly or wrongly) of a relatively barren era in Brazilian football.
1st, Lionel Messi – Argentina
Messi being the top selection is driven mostly by the large encompassing shadow of one man. Diego Armando Maradona. He was only 5ft 5”, but in Argentina, he is a giant figure who holds one accolade over Messi, winning Argentina a World Cup. Like Messi, Maradona was considered the best player of his generation and in some cases, the greatest player of all time. While it may be an oversimplification and undermines how talented Argentina was in 1986, Mardoana is considered to have won Argentina the 1986 World Cup almost single handily, scoring some of the most iconic goals in football history in the process.
Messi has achieved almost unparalleled success in his career. No player has won as many Ballon d’Or titles as Messi, no player has won as many UEFA European Golden Boot awards, no Argentine has been awarded the Argentina football of the year award more times than Messi, and no one has made more appearances of scored as many goals for Argentina than Lionel Messi. He has won everything there is to win at the elite level, except one thing…a World Cup title. It’s not as if he hasn’t come close, in 2014 Messi was named the player of the tournament, but was left heartbroken as Argentina lost the World Cup final to Germany 1-0, with Germany scoring late in the second half of extra time.
Messi finally got over his Argentina hoodoo, winning the 2021 Copa América final which was the first time in five attempts he won a final with Argentina (not including the 2008 Olympics), which will be a huge weight off his shoulders. But as long as he hasn’t won a World Cup, he’ll never have the same love from his country as Maradona did, who quite literally has God-like status in Argentina, Should Messi win a World Cup, it’ll end the most completing argument of Maradona being better than him, and separate him entirely from Ronaldo. Messi needs this World Cup win for both personal and national reasons, he could’ve chosen to play for Spain, where he almost certainly would’ve won a World Cup in 2010. Should he become up empty-handed with Argentina, there’s no telling just how haunting that decision could potentially be, not only for his legacy but his own personal desire to be a world champion. Messi, more than anyone else on this list needs a World Cup.
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