Messi wary of league of his own

WHITHER Lionel Messi? Sometimes, even being the greatest may not be enough. The tales of Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods are sobering testimony to that.

It's probably how the little maestro is feeling right now as he contemplates an unexpectedly troubled twilight to his stellar career. Physically he is fine and no one foresees the kind of trauma and tragedy that afflicted the aforementioned duo.

But under-performing teammates and pig-headed politicians are threatening to do what a generation of defenders has failed to accomplish: stop him in his gilded tracks.

As all the world knows, Argentina have to beat Ecuador in Quito (Wednesday 7.30am in Malaysia) to be sure of at least a playoff for what will be Messi's last realistic shot at the supreme prize in football.

A final throw of the World Cup dice with his country is one thing; just where he is going to be playing club football for the next few years is quite another.

The current political shenanigans over Catalonian independence have thrown a sizable spanner into the works. The previously unthinkable prospect of Barcelona being kicked out of La Liga looms large.

But first things first, and as the 30-year-old takes a deep breath of all-too-rarified air at 2,850m in the Andes, he will know that even against a side that can't qualify, tomorrow's decider will be no walk in the park.

Always psychologically fragile, the Argentines have talked themselves out of previous high-altitude encounters – most notably in Bolivia where they lost 6-1 in 2009 with a team boasting Messi, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and Javier Zanetti.

That debacle was at the even higher 3,600m of La Paz under the stewardship of Diego Maradona. It remains a matter of debate whether the cause was a shortage of breath or an excess of hot air!

But in the same venue during a 1-1 draw in 2013, Messi and Angel di Maria suffered enough to require oxygen on the field. Earlier this year, with Messi suspended, they were beaten again.

Argentina have not won in Quito since 2001 and although they play down the significance of the venue, no one can be confident the demons of high altitude have been conquered.

What will alarm Messi just as much is that recent performances at sea level have been just as queasily unconvincing. They have not won for four qualifying games in which they have managed a solitary goal – and that was an own goal – in a home draw with bottom team Venezuela.

This from a side that, besides Messi, boasts Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Paolo Dybala, Sergio Aguero and Mauro Icardi – a combined £300m (RM1669.27) of firepower in any transfer market.

At their wit's end to find a winning formula, Argentina have tried everything including three different managers during the campaign, changing venues and dropping the undroppable. All to no avail.

No one seems to care as much as Messi who, if anything, took too much upon himself in the last match against Peru. Yes, they were unlucky, they hit the woodwork, the Peru keeper played a blinder but still …

They really do need to step up tomorrow and if they do, they could still be one of the favourites to win in Russia. But even if Messi were to achieve that, the supreme accolade of greatest of all time would still elude him with many judges.

One World Cup win and one final defeat would put him level with Maradona but two behind Pele who is out on his own with three triumphs. This failure to deliver on the biggest stage is what holds him back from the ultimate acclaim.

It is incredible then that such a once-in-a-lifetime talent now has to worry about his future with his club as well as his country.

A Catalonian breakaway from Spain has long been on the cards but not in the manner the current bitter and violent circumstances suggest it may happen. Passions have boiled over and no longer is it a given that Barcelona will be allowed to continue to ply their trade in La Liga.

The league president, Javier Tebas, is an unreconstructed fascist and ardent Real Madrid fan. Given the strength of anti-Catalan feeling around Spain, the Blaugrana may find themselves with nobody to play.

It has been said they could play in another country's league but the examples given of Monaco in Ligue Un and Swansea in the EPL do not hold water – both are totally different cases.

It was even suggested they could play in the EPL but are their fans going to fly 2,500km every other weekend to watch away games? And are the majority of EPL clubs going to want them anyway?

The Big Six might but what of the other 14? Turkeys do not vote for Xmas.

FC Barca need to keep a cool head over this even if politicians are losing theirs.

If they get carried away on a wave of nationalism, they could find themselves along with fellow Catalans, Espanyol and Girona, playing in a Catalan league with all the dire consequences.

Broadcasting rights would be decimated – and those of La Liga too if there was no more El Clasico – no players would want to join, and without Barca to push them, Real Madrid would also suffer - surely losing their competitive edge.

The Catalans would soon know how erstwhile European giants Celtic, Ajax and Benfica feel now that TV rights dictate how successful you can be. And if they were suddenly cast into the wilderness, it would be no place for the greatest club player of all time to see out his years.

So Messi has much to ponder in both the short and medium term. At least he had the sixth sense not to sign the latest contract the club has put before him. But for his country, he may not have an escape route.

Still, as a club player, this column feels he is in a league of his own: let's hope he doesn't end up playing in one.