What's at stake for Lionel Messi in Copa America Centenario final

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Leander Schaerlaeckens
What's at stake for Lionel Messi in Copa America Centenario final
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There is no right answer. Because the comparisons are littered by false equivalencies.

Who was better? Who is better now?

It's all a bit pointless. Because just as there's no way of knowing if the 1960s, as a decade, were better than the '90s, there's no telling if a soccer player from the '70s was better than one from, say, the '80s or than one playing now.

[ COPA AMERICA | Predictions | Scores/Schedule | Standings | Teams ]

Yes, we're talking about Lionel Messi. And about Diego Maradona. And Pele. About greatness and the greatest.

It's fairly well established by now that Messi is the best of his time. Cristiano Ronaldo is an all-time top-five player, but he just isn't Messi. And if the little Argentine's superior trophy haul alone doesn't bear that out, there is nonetheless a quasi-consensus. Or a quorum and a majority, at the very least. A filibuster-proof supermajority even, perhaps. Whatever.

The talk then becomes whether Messi is, in fact, also the best player ever. If you consider how much faster and more technical the game is now than even a decade or two ago, the answer is plainly yes. But then you have to judge players within the context of their own time. After all, if Pele and Maradona would have had the same advanced sports science and facilities Messi benefits from, they might have done just as well in today's soccer world. Or better. Or worse. Who knows? This is why the entire argument is senseless.

But many will insist on having it anyway. Because what is the point of sports if it isn't to speculate and argue about unknowable things? Entire careers have been built on it.

And the traditionalists, the Peleists and Maradonaites, who think it a foregone conclusion that they have the upper hand over the Messians, have one central argument: Messi, unlike Pele and Maradona, has never won the World Cup. Maradona did with Argentina in 1986. Pele won it with Brazil in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Messi lost the 2014 World Cup final with Argentina in extra time.

Messi has won the Olympics with Argentina's under-23 national team in Beijing in 2008. He won the under-20 World Cup in 2005.

Messi has also won the Champions League four times and Spain's La Liga eight times with Barcelona. Neither Pele or Maradona can match that. The former won the Copa Libertadores twice with Santos and was a Brazilian champion six times – although he never played in Europe, where the very best players were employed even back in the 1960s and '70s. Maradona claimed just three league titles, with Boca Juniors and Napoli, and has only a second-tier UEFA Cup title to show for his European exploits.

But, the naysayers proffer, Messi has never won a major international tournament for his country.

On Sunday, he can accomplish something his two competitors for the all-time crown never managed, though: He can win Copa America.

Well, Copa America Centenario, the one-off 100th-anniversary edition that will conclude with an Argentina vs. Chile final in New Jersey – a rematch of last year's championship game in the regular Copa, won by Chile on penalties on their home soil. It was Messi's second Copa final loss, after falling short in 2007 as well.

If he wins on Sunday, he'll have won Copa America, which Pele and Maradona never did. He'll finally get that first major title with the Albiceleste to end his country's senior trophy drought dating back to 1993 – Maradona's days, incidentally, although his career was in freefall by then and he didn't play.

That would give Messi an amplified claim in the grander debate over greatness and the greatest, for those who feel he needs it.

But first there's Chile to deal with. The final is not only a rematch of last year's final, but also of the teams' tournament opener. On June 6, Argentina took a 2-0 lead in Santa Clara before Jose Fuenzalida made the final score closer in injury time. But then Chile beat a weak Bolivia 2-1 – albeit on a penalty kick in the 10th minute of injury time – and outlasted Panama in a silly 4-2 game. That's when the defending champions caught fire, demolishing a previously sound-looking Mexico 7-0 in the quarters and needing just 11 minutes to get both the goals in a 2-0 semifinal win over Colombia.

The Argentines, meanwhile, had an even more comfortable path to the final. Since the Chile game, their goal difference is 16-1 across four games. First came a 5-0 dismantling of Panama and then a 3-0 win over Bolivia. In the quarterfinals, plucky Venezuela was slayed 4-1. And then the United States was carved apart in a 4-0 destruction that didn't even quite reflect its score line.

So now they meet again, the two strongest teams in the tournament by far – especially since neither Brazil nor Uruguay, who both ought to have made the final four, delivered anywhere near to expectations by getting knocked out in the group stage.

The championship of the Western Hemisphere is at stake. Also: more fodder for Messi's defenders.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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