In downtown Cleveland, a giant poster hangs from the top of a building on Ontario Street. The image of LeBron James with his arms stretched out wide in a moment of triumph adorns it. The copy on it reads "We are all witnesses".
To go down in the annals of history, one needs witnesses, who help transcend greatness of individuals across generations. This is true especially for athletes. The uniqueness of their profession makes it essential for a generation of writers, opinion makers, colleagues and fans to relay the genius of a sportsman from one to the next.
Each generation also has its own biases, which is why most people who have watched or played with Diego Maradona, refuse to accept Lionel Messi is as good or greater.
The two diminutive Argentines are eerily similar. They are by far the best players of their generation. Maradona was a maverick. A flawed genius who never ceased to amaze on a football pitch. Generations have grown up on the legend of El Diego - from the "hand of god" to his wizardry while taking on the entire England defense, to score possibly the greatest goal ever in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup.
The story of Lionel Messi`s rise in world football is truly inspirational. After suffering a growth hormone disorder as a kid, making it as a professional footballer is a remarkable achievement. But dominating world football is something else.
Not many people know, but Messi has scored his own "hand of god" goal against Espanyol in 2007 in a La Liga game.
Critics say, he has a weak right foot. True. They say he can`t dominate in the air. True. They say he isn’t a dead ball specialist. True. Yet he has broken every goal scoring record at Barcelona and the La Liga. Does that not make his achievement all the more special? Him winning 4 Ballon d`Or trophies, more than anybody else in history, despite those drawbacks, surely ranks as one of the greatest sporting feats ever then?
To those arguments, a prompt counter is shot back - that without Xavi and Iniesta`s assists, he would have never scored the goals he did and records he broke.
And a supplementary question along with that counter is – why does he not replicate his club form for his country where he does not have the assistance of the Spanish duo?
The 2010 World Cup was considered as a litmus test for Messi. Why? Because just like Maradona, he had to win the tournament to be pronounced as heir apparent to Diego`s vacant throne. At 23, that was an unfair expectation. Messi failed.
Which brings us to 2014. The year Lionel Messi could finally have ticked all the boxes that were required to attain unquestioned greatness. He couldn’t have started anywhere else but the Maracana, where in a moment of genius, the Argentine scored with his left foot, curling the ball into the bottom corner as he had done so often before. The perfect Messi goal would not be complete if there were no defenders lying on the floor in his wake. On this occasion there were two.
His goal against Iran in injury time was defined as cruel. Yes, it must have been gut wrenching to be an Iran player that day as Messi produced one of the iconic moments of this World Cup scoring from outside the box with the sweetest of left foots. When you do things like that, you begin to wonder - is this my time? Messi may have thought that as well, as he stretched his arms wide open to celebrate. The assist to Di Maria against Switzerland in the dying moments of extra-time may have further reinforced that belief.
Louis van Gaal had a definite plan to mark the Argentina captain in the semi-final and in a match that failed to showcase either team`s attacking prowess, Messi played his part including converting his penalty from to help his team overcome Netherlands.
Before the tournament started, Argentina`s attack was termed as the “Fab Four”. However, as the tournament progresses, Gonzalo Higuain struggled with form, while Sergiro Aguero struggled with injury. That left Messi with Di Maria who seemed to have picked up his game. The duo combined well until Di Maria injured himself in the quarterfinal and didn`t place a game since.
In the final, Germany clearly dominated Argentina and ran out deserved winners. Messi had a decent game but the lack of depth in the side cost the South Americans on the big stage. Despite coming so close to winning the trophy, Argentina failed at the final hurdle in extra-time.
So how does it feel to be Lionel Messi? Just one game, which on winning, would have elevated him to the level of Diego Maradona. A game that could have helped achieve sporting immortality. Ninety minutes that might have thrust unmatched greatness upon him, thereby placing him in a territory no footballer had been to before. With a World Cup win, Leo Messi could have made the strongest possible case to be slotted in a league of his own.
Like that poster in Cleveland, we might have been witnesses to the Argentine`s watershed moment. But it did not arrive. It remains to be seen how this generation will remember Messi and relay his greatness to the next one. Of course, he is not done yet. But as of now, the most important trophy still continues to elude him.