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How coronavirus could affect Lionel Messi's claim to be the greatest of all time

How coronavirus could affect Lionel Messi's claim to be the greatest of all time
© Reuters
Sports Mole looks at the impact CONMEBOL's decision to postpone the Copa America until 2021 could have on Lionel Messi's hopes of finally winning an international trophy.

It is difficult to keep track of the swathes of sporting events which have been affected by the escalating coronavirus crisis, with just about every sport in every part of the world feeling the impact of the pandemic.

As the most popular and widespread sport on the planet, football has unsurprisingly dominated many of the headlines, and Tuesday was a particularly momentous day in terms of the already-unprecedented level of disruption to the calendar.

Club competitions such as the Premier League, EFL, FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League had already been suspended, and UEFA have now confirmed that Euro 2020 will follow suit, being delayed for 12 months until 2021.

Soon after that announcement, UEFA's South American equivalent CONMEBOL revealed that the Copa America will now also take place next year, having initially been moved to 2020 in order to bring it in line with the European Championship.

South American fans have not been deprived of a major international tournament for as long as their European counterparts - just last year Brazil lifted the Copa America crown - but the decision could still have an impact on arguably the world's greatest ever footballer.

Argentina's Lionel Messi scores their second goal from the penalty spot on November 18, 2019© Reuters

Much has been made of Lionel Messi's relative lack of success on the world stage, with a major international trophy the only thing missing from his otherwise stellar resume.

The 32-year-old has won everything there is to win with Barcelona - 10 La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues making up just part of a trophy haul which leaves him as one of the most decorated players in the game's history - and he has also been awarded every individual honour worth winning, including an unmatched six Ballons d'Or.

However, in the eternal argument of who is the greatest player of all time, the lack of international silverware is the main - perhaps the only - stick with which it is possible to beat Messi.

Pele has an unparalleled haul of three World Cups, Diego Maradona almost single-handedly dragged Argentina to the pinnacle of the game in 1986, while Cristiano Ronaldo helped Portugal to the Euro 2016 crown.

Messi has come close - he won the Golden Ball en route to the World Cup final in 2014 and has finished on the losing side in three editions of the Copa America final, before picking up a bronze medal last year.

Argentina's Lionel Messi in action against Colombia in the Copa America on June 15, 2019© Reuters

However, his solitary international honour remains a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, which is a paltry haul considering that he has been one of the best two players in world football for 12 years now.

Of course, it would be inaccurate to portray Messi's international career as a failure; he is the highest scoring Argentine in history and boasts both the most assists and the most man of the match awards in Copa America history too.

Until he lifts a trophy aloft in the Albiceleste colours there will be that lingering critique of his credentials as the GOAT, though, however unfairly.

The great hope was that this summer would be the last big chance for Messi to achieve that feat. At 32 he is now past his best, but still performing at a level which few others, if any, in world football can match.

The tournament was also due to take place partly on home soil, with Argentina sharing the hosting rights with Colombia.

Lionel Messi in Argentina training on March 20, 2019© Reuters

That will still be the case, but the enforced decision to postpone the tournament for a year could have a knock-on effect on Messi's impact.

The Barcelona talisman will turn 34 during the group stages and, while he still leads the way in terms of both goals and assists in La Liga, his figures of 24 goals in 31 games is slightly below his usual ludicrous level.

Indeed, should the season be completed with all possible games still being played then Barcelona could be in action a maximum of 16 more times between now and the end of the campaign.

At Messi's current scoring rate that would give him an overall goal tally of 36 for the season - a brilliant return for almost everyone else but one which would represent his lowest since 2007-08 and the first time in 11 seasons that he has failed to surpass the 40-goal mark.

While those statistics point to a natural decline as he gets older, it is still impossible to aim any serious criticism at Messi given that his numbers are still on a different level to almost everyone else and that the Barcelona team now is arguably more reliant on him to produce something special than ever.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their first goal on March 7, 2020© Reuters

That in itself poses a warning, though, as it is the situation Argentina have been in for almost the entirety of his international career.

Other world-class talent such as Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria have contributed along the way, but they are both now also the wrong side of 30 and the year-long delay could have a more detrimental effect on the supporting cast than it could on Messi himself.

On the flip side, Paulo Dybala and particularly Lautaro Martinez could benefit from the postponement, although the fact that all of the players mentioned so far are attackers points to the problem of balance which has plagued the Argentine national side for so long.

Injury-depending, Messi is still likely to be very much around when the Copa America is eventually played in 2021, and he will still most likely be one of the best players on the planet too.

However, the delay of the tournament certainly will not help his bid to finally get the international trophy monkey off his back in what may be his final major tournament, with the heat of a World Cup in Qatar one year later posing its own problems for a player who will then be 35.

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Argentina's Alexis Mac Allister pictured in February 2020
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