As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
There is no other player in the 2014 FIFA World Cup under more pressure to excel than Lionel Messi. There is no one else from whom more is expected than the tiny Argentine. Messi is considered by many as the best footballer in the world, and has already secured his place in soccer history amongst the all-time greats. What he has accomplished at Barcelona is nothing short of amazing. During that time he has won a record four Ballon d’Ors (for best player in the world), and a record three European Golden Shoes (for top overall scorer), not to mention six La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys, and three Champions League crowns for his club. He has also established numerous goalscoring records, including most goals in a season (50).
However, critics continue to harp at his inability to translate club glory into international success. The goals have not come as frequently (Messi had zero goals in the 2010 World Cup), and neither has the silverware (both in the World Cup and Copa America). As a result pressure is on him to not only perform well for his country this summer, but to lead them to World Cup glory. But can Messi can it done in Brazil? It may well present his best chance at etching his name alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as the greatest players ever.
Before Going Pro
Messi was born in Rosario, Santa Fe Province on June 24, 1987. He started playing football at the age of five for a local club called Grandoli (coached by his father) before switching to Newell’s Old Boys. At age 11, he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency (GHD).
Many of the top clubs in Argentina (including local powerhouse River Plate) were unwilling to pay the medical bills to treat his condition. Barcelona would eventually offer to pay his bills in an effort to lure him to Spain, where he enrolled in the club’s youth academy in 2000. Some of his teammates at La Masia (the name for Barcelona’s youth academy) included Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and Victor Valdes.
Messi made his La Liga debut with Barcelona in October 2004 against Espanyol at the age of 17. He scored his first goal against Albacete Balompie in May 2005. In his first full season with the senior club (which was cut short by injury) Messi scored six goals in 17 league appearances as well as one Champions League goal in six appearances as Barcelona — under manager Frank Rijkaard — did the league and Champions League double. By 2007, Messi had established himself as a regular first-team player.
His “breakout” season came in the 2007-2008 season, as he began playing a more prominent role on the team. Messi also finished third in the 2007 Ballon d’Or. When Ronaldinho departed the following season, Barcelona handed over the reins to Messi; he did not disappoint, leading the Catalans to a remarkable league, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble. He scored 38 goals in all competitions that year. In 2009, Messi won his first Ballon d’Or, beating Cristiano Ronaldo by a record-setting margin.
In the 2010-2011 season, Messi set a Spanish record with 50 goals scored in a season, leading Barcelona to yet another league and Champions League double. In 2012 he set another record with most goals scored in a calendar year with 91 and became the only player in history to win the Ballon d’Or four times (all consecutive). In 2014, Barcelona failed to win a trophy for the first time since the 2006-2007 season.
Messi chose to represent his homeland of Argentina over Spain (he had attained citizenship in 2005). He represented the youth side at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships, which Argentina won. He scored six goals during that tournament and won both the Golden Shoe (for top goalscorer) and the Golden Ball (for top player). Messi made his full international debut later that year (as a substitute) at the age of 18.
He was selected in the Argentina squad for the 2006 World Cup, where he played sparingly for La Albiceleste. His role increased in the 2007 Copa America tournament, helping Argentina advance to the final before losing to Brazil. The following year, he lead Argentina to the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Messi was the central figure of the 2010 World Cup squad. Many felt that he underperformed during the tournament (zero goals scored) as Argentina were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Germany. The criticisms grew after the 2011 Copa America (held on home soil) in which Argentina were eliminated in the quarterfinals. Following a managerial change, Messi was named captain of the national team. Messi had a spectacular 2012 for the Albiceleste with 12 goals in nine appearances. In 2013 Messi led Argentina to World Cup qualification, as they topped the South American zone (CONMEBOL). Messi scored 10 goals during World Cup qualifying. He is currently second on Argentina’s all-time goals list with 37 goals (in 86 appearances).