Four years ago during the World Cup in South Africa I went out for dinner with a friend of mine, Simon Kuper. He’d invited a couple of his writer buddies, John Carlin and Gideon Rachmann. Topics varied from politics and lifestyles in South Africa, Britain and France. Inevitably, though, all roads led back to football, the reason why we were in Johannesburg.
Carlin said he had the germs of a theory.
It was to pose Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the latter-day Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, the former a wonder and the latter pretty damn good.
I’m not sure how far Carlin went with the idea.
The music history books suggest there was no bitterness in the Mozart-Salieri rivalry but the premise has stayed with me as Messi and Ronaldo appear hell-bent on rewriting the annals of the sport.
Messi was born nearly 27 years ago in Rosario in the Argentine province of Santa Fe.
He started kicking a ball at the age of five for Grandoli, a local club coached by his father Jorge.
Three years later he progressed to Rosario-based Newell’s Old Boys and became part of their all-conquering youth team.
That success alerted River Plate to his talents but the club didn’t pursue its interests after Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency.
River Plate felt the monthly costs of treating it were too expensive.
Barcelona didn’t baulk at the price and have reaped rich rewards for their clairvoyance.
With Messi in their ranks they’ve won six Spanish titles, two Spanish cups, five Spanish supercups, three Uefa champions leagues, two Uefa supercups and two club world cups.
But a World Cup with his national team?
Not yet. And apparently that’s not good enough.
For Messi to be associated truly with the greats such as Pele and Diego Maradona, then he has to lead Argentina to triumph in a World Cup.
Of course, the irony is that many of the players who allow him to be so good are playing for Spain and it was a Spanish coach who was the making of him.
In the 2009-10 season, the Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, moved the Argentine from the right wing into the “false-nine”.
“Short-nine” would have been an equally accurate description of the role since Messi is one metre 69cm and tiny by traditional models of men leading the line.
But the false-nine is suited to his manifold gifts.
Messi can drop into midfield, collect the ball and use his strength, balance and pace to accelerate towards goal.
As defenders come towards him he can either pass to a player in space or if they back off in anticipation of a pass, he can continue.
It created havoc for opponents.
And Barcelona’s list of honours under Guardiola justified the adaptation.
Glory for Argentina has been lacking by comparison.
Messi was in the team that lost the 2007 Copa America final to Brazil and in the under-20 side that won Olympic gold in Beijing a year later.
The 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America are also better left forgotten.
With Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria, Argentina have a formidable range of options at their disposal for the 2014 World Cup.
Manager Alejandro Sabello, who has given Messi the captain’s armband, has the difficult task of melding the strike force and making sure they have a solid midfield and defensive platform from which to operate.
Group F opponents Iran, Bosnia and Nigeria shouldn’t be too onerous.
But it’s at the latter stages where Messi will be asked to perform his miracles.
And if the little lad from Rosario can dominate the biggest stage of them all, his place in the pantheon of giants will be assured.