Going into the 1980s, as David Stern was rising from the league’s Executive Vice President to commissioner, the NBA was on the brink of irrelevance. On the ropes with decreasing viewership on the major networks, the NBA were given a saving grace—big new television deals with upstart cable networks ESPN and USA brought the decade-long, opposite coast rivalry of two midwest kids named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson into millions of American homes. From that point forward, the NBA—and professional sports going forward from an American sporting perspective—was no longer team-driven and instead marketed its stars.
But if a team isn’t centered on one singular superstar, and instead has that superstar’s talent spread across an entire roster, that usually means the team’s chances of winning it all are pretty damn good. And that’s where today’s matchup between Germany and Argentina in the 2014 World Cup Final brings us—pretty much the same philosophical point as last month’s NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. Or really, where the Spurs against LeBron James brought us. We witnessed one man—the sport’s transcendent “best player alive”—max out his individual talents and lose to a team that had a carefully composed lineup.
Now former Big Three comrades Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, along with a roster full of veteran castoffs and minimum salary bros, failed to follow LeBron’s lead toward another title. But while most of that roster sits at home, after ten years and nearly every relevant accolade collected, LeBron still isn’t ready to rest on his laurels. He’s trying to maximize his own potential to achieve GOAT status and chase another ring.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi is hunting for similar accreditation. He’s been named the World Player of the Year four times (a world record), holds the Guinness World Record for most goals in a year (91), and has six La Liga titles, three European Cups, and an Olympic Gold medal to use as a shiny coaster. But if he were to retire today, the best soccer player of the 21st century would decidedly be outside of the GOAT conversation, because he lacks the World Cup titles that made Pele, and the one spellbinding World Cup title that legitimized Diego Maradona’s claim to Pele’s GOAT status.
One World Cup winner’s medal would put him on par with Maradona to save face in Argentina (where, believe it or not, he hasn’t always been the most beloved native son thanks to his previous inability to replicate his Barcelona form while playing for his home country). Throw in his unparalleled individual statistics and club honors while playing for Barcelona, and Messi’s GOAT application suddenly doesn’t need a cover letter. No overly complicated prefaces, just plain facts.
Unfortunately, Messi’s fight for his World Cup currently mirrors LeBron’s June plight for his third Larry O’Brien trophy. The Spurs may have been too much of a machine for LeBron to unplug, but by comparison, Germany is an undead fire-breathing all-conquering dragon. They haven’t lost a match yet. They beat Brazil 7-1. They’ve outscored the field 17-4. This Sunday, German manager Joachim Low will be riding into Estadio Maracana like Aegon Targaryen and his dragons flying into King’s Landing. Or, better yet, like Gregg Popovich showing up to Game 5 last month.
Aside from Messi, no other Argentine striker has scored this World Cup. Against Germany, that’s not likely to change. It doesn’t help Messi’s cause that Germany also has their own Kawhi Leonard leading the attack—striker Thomas Muller has scored five goals so far (second in the tournament) and notched one assist while popping up all over the pitch in prime scoring positions. Germany has the World Cup equivalent of the Spurs’ roster—they’re the deepest team top-to-bottom, but they lack one player with the sex appeal of a Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Luis Suarez, or even an Arjen Robben. The German national team’s version of Tim Duncan would probably be captain Philipp Lahm, who was last seen doing an ad campaign for a German health insurance organization.
So, my fellow NBA fans, here’s your choice for rooting interests on Sunday: Join LeBron (who’ll be at the Final) in siding with Messi (who else would LBJ root for?) and pine for Messi’s GOAT-ness, or ride out with the dominant Germans and expect #MessiTears.