Messi

Say what you like about the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar but it produced some amazing football, especially in the nail-biting final. The clash between Argentina and France, the defending champions was filled with nail biting tension.

It looked like a forgone conclusion with the Argentinians leading by two goals to zero until the dying moments of the game when French star, Kylian Mbappe produced two goals in the dying moments of the game and then proceeded to match the goal by Argentina’ s captain, Lionel Messi, thus forcing a penalty shoot-out.

Messi’s greatness

While the result was heart-breaking for the French, the victory was a nice send off for Mr. Messi, who is hailed as one of the greatest players ever (GOAT) and yet, somehow the biggest prize in global soccer always seemed to elude him.

Unfortunately for Mr. Messi, he’s from the country that gave us Diego Maradona, who is considered one of the Gods of modern soccer. So, for all his achievements at the club level, the inability to bring home soccer’s greatest prize meant that as far as most Argentinians were concerned, Mr. Messi was a shadow of Mr. Maradona.

So, for Mr. Messi, this victory was a key moment for him to come out of Mr. Maradona’s shadow and there is no doubt that as this is being written, that life in Argentina is being focused on him. It took a glance at an article in the Atlantic for me to understand that Mr. Messi’s triumph goes beyond soccer.

The writer makes the point that Mr. Messi’s moment of greatest success comes at what is effectively the dying days of his playing career. Mr. Messi is 35-years-old, which for a professional athlete is geriatric. Yet, despite his age, Mr. Messi remains a force of the field and more importantly, Mr. Messi has managed to do what very few superstars have managed to do – he’s evolved and ensured that whatever success is more than just about him. At 35, he’s not as fast as he used to be but he’s grown wiser and smarter in his playing style and how it gels with the rest of the team.

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There is no doubt that there are geniuses in just about every field who can make the difference between success and failure. In modern soccer, there was the example of Diego Maradona who not only led Argentina to victory in 1986 but managed to bring an inferior team to the final in 1990. In rugby union, there was the example of the late Jonah Lomu, who cut through everyone’s defence like a heated rod going through butter.

However, modern team sport is about strategy and while have a genius of the field can make the difference, there is a danger of becoming over reliant on the single guy. After 1986, every team that faced Argentina had one clear strategy – contain Diego Maradona. In rugby union, Mr. Lomu made headlines in the 1995 World Cup until he reached the finals and the Springboks developed a strategy called – contain Mr. Lomu.

Unfortunately for Mr. Messi, the strategy used against him in so many world cups were the same as the one used after 1986. From the day the press started hailing him as the world’s best player. Everything was about containing him.

So, for this world cup, Mr. Messi made his team greater than himself and his contribution was that of a brilliant conductor brining out the best in people rather that single virtuoso. At 35, Mr. Messi wasn’t going to go toe-to-toe with the 23-year-old Mr. Mbappe. He was going to use his team. Mr. Mbappe’s hat-trick was undoubtedly phenomenal and he deserves the Golden Boot award for most goals scored. However, the ultimate prize is not the Gold Boot but the World Cup.

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This point isn’t limited to soccer. I think of a law firm I was trying to solicit business from. The Managing Partner made the point his goal was not to become the star performer but to ensure that the cases went to the right lawyers in his firm and that all his lawyers would grow become better lawyers thus ensuring his firm produced good quality work.

Yes, super stars in business are good to have just as they are in team sports. However, businesses that have a strategy of working around a single star have a way of vanishing when said star no longer performs like a star or retires or dies. Stars also have a way of forgetting that the things that made them successful don’t last forever.

As the writer of the Atlantic article points out, just as Mr. Messi understood that at 35, he had to evolve and be the best 35-year-old player, his Portuguese rival, Cristiano Ronaldo was trying to play as a man ten-years younger and failed at it. Nobody doubts that Mr. Ronaldo is a great player but at 35 he isn’t as sharp as he was at 27 and its particularly noticeable at the highest levels of international competition.

The same can be said of people stuck in old paradigms and try to operate as they did a decade ago. Technology changes, people change and the market changes. What was great a decade ago may no longer be great in the current situation. So, as one should always be self-aware and evolve in order to stay great as Mr. Messi did.

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* Suresh Nair is an award-winning sports journalist who is also a qualified international coach and international referee instructor.

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