This June has been a banner month for sports fans in America, especially those who enjoy watching the greatest soccer and basketball players of this, or possibly any generation. LeBron James won his third NBA championship on Sunday in probably the best seven-game performance of any basketball player ever. Lionel Messi and Argentina, meanwhile, are favored to win the Copa America. Both men dominate their respective sports, and years from now those of us who saw them play will annoy our children with sententious statements beginning, “Yeah, he’s good, but LeBron …,” and “Sure that was okay, but Messi could …”
But aside from being at the pinnacle of their sports and being able to do things most of the rest of us could not even begin to imitate, the two stories diverge. LeBron became an indisputable legend this week by overcoming impossible odds and beating the consensus best player on the historically best team ever. In doing so he turned in a performance for the ages, leading everybody (on both teams!) in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. LeBron confirmed what we all suspected, that he’s a bit superhuman. And he brought joy to a benighted sports city while leading a team that he basically built.
Now Messi has a chance to write a chapter in his country’s soccer history by winning the Copa America, something Argentina hasn’t done since 1993. Messi has actually competed in three previous Copas without a victory, but his team did manage to finish second in the last two iterations of the tournament. By many measures, what Messi has accomplished is streets ahead of anything LeBron has done. To list his individual achievements would take too long for me to write and for you to read, and since soccer is a team game it’s his team accomplishments that matter more. Most of these have come with his club Barcelona, which have won Spain’s La Liga eight times since Messi’s arrival, while also winning the domestic cup competition four times. Even more impressive, Messi’s Barca have won the UEFA Champions League four times.
He’s been no slouch with Argentina either, winning the Olympic gold medal in 2008 and finishing runners up at the last World Cup. But in general, the Albicelestes have been underwhelming in the Messi years. Even though Messi was voted best young player at the 2007 Copa, that would hardly soothe his side’s loss to arch-rival Brazil. If you need evidence that winning with Argentina matters more to Messi than individual accolades, check out this image of him on the podium at the 2014 World Cup after accepting his golden ball for being the tournament’s top scorer and losing the final to Germany.
As mentioned, in many ways these accomplishments are more impressive than LeBron’s three championships and four NBA MVP awards. For one thing, while LeBron is the greatest American basketball player in a sport dominated by Americans, Lionel Messi is the greatest player in a sport that is played by almost everyone in the world. And, unlike LeBron, Messi is not a physical anomaly. He’s quick but not blazingly fast, and as a child he was diagnosed with a growth hormone disorder that required medical intervention for him to reach his current height of 5-foot-7. If it weren’t for the phalanx of photographers, you might bump into Messi on the street without noticing him, and his personality is smaller than his stature. Even if his endorsement earnings make him the world’s second highest paid athlete, the idea of Messi appearing in an Amy Schumer movie like LeBron did is beyond imagination (although he might need a movie deal to help him with his tax problems).
Also, I’d argue that carrying the hopes of Cleveland, Ohio on your hypertrophied shoulders is nothing compared to carrying the collective footballing aspirations of a nation of 44 million soccer mad Argentines. Going into Tuesday’s match against the US, the pressure will be on Messi to lead his team into the finals, but in some ways it’s a thankless task. If Argentina win, they will have beaten the team they were expected to beat, sort of like the Cavs beating the Hawks. In head to head matchups Argentina has beaten the United States five times, drawn twice and lost only two times, most recently in 1999. One of those two losses did come in the 1995 Copa America, and if the U.S. can repeat this feat it will be one of the greatest victories in American soccer history. The U.S. national team actually has a decent recent track record against soccer greats. At the 2014 World Cup, the team nearly beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal before drawing 2-2. But with the Americans missing three of the team’s top players in Houston, you would have to expect the game to go Messi’s way no matter what the chant says.
Even if Argentina ultimately wins the Copa, Messi will still be lacking the one thing that LeBron is not—he will never have won his sport’s greatest prize. To truly cement his legacy in the same way as Lebron, he might have to lead Argentina to World Cup victory, as Diego Maradona did in 1986. All of which, when you think about it, is rather unfair. In terms of club accolades and individual awards, Messi is without peer (and he’s still only 28!), but without winning the World Cup, to some fans he’ll always be just outside the pantheon of the greatest of all time. It goes to show that it’s easier to be in GOAT contention when most of your games are played in one city in one country.