Don’t Let GOAT Debates, Winning Streaks, and World Cup Records Distract You From Appreciating Lionel Messi

Some things transcend boundaries and become near-universal truths. One of those is that sports fans love a good debate over historical greatness. In the world of soccer, that argument tends to focus on Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The two men can’t not be juxtaposed against each other, especially when they’re both playing at a World Cup.

The 2022 edition of the tournament will only take that one step further. Both stars are (probably) playing in their final World Cup, making this a legacy-shaping event.

So, through that lens, I have a request: Forget all the talk about GOATs, overall bodies of work, and everything else. And just watch Messi play.

Lionel Messi celebrates a goal with the Argentina national team.
Make sure to appreciate Lionel Messi during the 2022 World Cup. | Elsa/Getty Images

Another thing that sports fans and media can’t resist is a good narrative. And, coming into the 2022 World Cup, there are plenty swirling around Lionel Messi and Argentina.

The biggest storyline is how winning the title would affect the diminutive forward’s legacy. While he did manage to find some international success in the Copa America, Messi has never led Argentina to a World Cup title. That reality is held up as a blemish on an otherwise impeccable resume, suggesting that, despite countless domestic titles, the former Barcelona man can’t win the big one.

Things also escalate to another level when Cristiano Ronaldo enters the mix. Throughout their respective careers, he and Messi have posited as opposing forces in a struggle for footballing supremacy. Now, with both men coming to the tail end of their careers — CR7 seems to be trying to end his as immediately as possible — this is the final showdown. A World Cup win would theoretically prove who’s better once and for all.

And then there’s also the added detail that Argentina will arrive in Qatar with a lengthy winning streak intact. While that’s not the biggest deal in the world — the South American giants should be winning most of their games outside of major tournaments — don’t be surprised if it surfaces as a narrative device. Should La Albiceleste keep winning, Messi will get the credit. Should the streak end prematurely, some may wonder why the talisman didn’t step up to keep it alive.

That’s all a long-winded way to say that there will be plenty of storylines every time Lionel Messi takes the pitch. And while they largely make sense, they aren’t what’s important. Instead, set them aside, at least for a 90-minute block, and just watch the forward.

Speaking just for myself, I haven’t seen enough of the living Argentine legend. I’m most invested in the Premier League, so, barring El Clasico, I wasn’t seeking out many Barcelona matches. By that same token, I don’t find myself watching PSG’s domestic engagements unless there’s truly nothing else on the schedule.

That’s left my experiences with Messi confined to international tournaments, the Champions League, and occasional highlight packages. Faced with the prospect of his retirement, that isn’t enough.

RELATED: World Cup 2022: Who’s the Betting Favorite to Win the Title?

At the risk of drawing something of a forced parallel (and sounding a bit like Ray Hudson), Argentina’s number 10 isn’t about hitting you over the head. He’s more about a subtle change of direction or a sneaky drop of the shoulder than hammering a 25-yard pile-driver into the top corner. He’s more of a classical composer than a heavy-metal guitarist.

Focusing on the big-picture narratives leaves less room for that nuance. If you’re only focused on Messi’s race to the top of the metaphorical mountain, it’s easy to miss the little moments of brilliance in each match. Those, I’d argue, are what make him stand out.

With all of that being said, though, I’m not willfully ignorant. I know that big-picture narratives are inescapable, especially when we’re talking about world-class athletes playing on a global stage. Messi is an internationally known name during a tournament that will capture the attention of even the most casual fan. It’s impossible to avoid leaning on broad strokes in at least some moments.

So while it may be something of an individualistic challenge, try to set all of that aside for 90 minutes. Sit down and forget about the winning streak, the GOAT debate, and trying to get over the World Cup hump. Just watch Lionel Messi. That’s it.

It might sound silly in the context of soccer’s greatest spectacle to spend a match focusing on something as “simple” as first touches, easy passes, and subtle body feints, trust me on this one. Those little moments of magic, rather than a resume, are what make Lionel Messi so special.