The Sublime Genius of Lionel Messi

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

He needs help like a fish needs a bicycle.” – Ray Hudson, on Lionel Messi

Here is what we know about Lionel Andrés Messi: originally from the Argentine city of Rosario, he is 26 years old. He is of relatively small stature (reportedly 5-foot-7), physically. He is left-footed and had a growth deficiency when he was a child, for which FC Barcelona, his current club in Spain, offered to pick up the medical tab in exchange for his coming to the Catalan youth academy. He is the four-time defending recipient of FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual award in soccer. He is, unequivocally and absolutely, the finest soccer player on the planet. And he has more than a solid chance to be, when all is said and done, the best the world has ever seen.

With his first-half hat trick against Valencia on Sunday, Messi refuted any doubts anyone may have had when he missed a game against Málaga due to injury. When his lauded new Brazilian teammate Neymar fed him with a wondrous through ball in the box which led to a goal, they jointly put to rest questions about their shared alpha dog status at one of the world’s biggest and most scrutinized clubs, at least for the time being. His rampant scoring touch and otherworldly dribbling abilities are perhaps the current biggest pieces of the Catalan puzzle, pieces which were noticeably absent due to injury during Barcelona’s 0-7 aggregate defeat to eventual champions Bayern Munich in the 2013 Champions League semifinal. In recent years, Messi’s innate passion for the game and his relentlessness in pursuit of the ball has led him to surpass Xavi’s tiki-taka wizardry as being the single embodying and driving force of FC Barcelona, a club which has been among the most consistent in the world over the last decade.

Depending on which competitions you include and which statistics sources you use, Messi has scored somewhere in the neighborhood of 250-320 goals in his career for Barcelona. He has won every major club competition imaginable for a team based in Spain’s La Liga, including having been apart of a team which won an unprecedented six trophies in the calendar year of 2009. He is the only person ever to lead or tie for the lead in La Liga for goals and assists in the same season. He has scored more goals in a calendar year than anyone, having scored 91 in 2012. He has earned his own version of The Lion King (thank you, Internet). Messi also has the distinction of being the only player who Mario Balotelli admits is better than he is, perhaps the most impressive feat yet.

Messi’s instinctual poise sets him far apart from everyone else in the world, including the widely-accepted next-best player, Christiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. Ronaldo, whom ESPN’s Alexander Netherton once portrayed as soccer’s Nietzschean Übermensch, is the ideal player concocted in the brains of teenagers playing FIFA or Football Manager. He is the person any soccer player aspires to be from a young age, the consummate competitor and physical specimen capable of scoring from anywhere on the pitch, especially deadly in dead-ball situations. He has a knack for tight, fast free kicks and powerful, impossibly long knuckleball goals which simultaneously confuse and astound the opposition and spectators alike. He is no slouch when it comes to goal-scoring either; Ronaldo is often the closest challenger to Messi in total goals scored, even beating him out in La Liga during the 2010-’11 season. Ronaldo is the last person not named Messi to be awarded the Ballon d’Or.

As Messi’s foil, Ronaldo has acquired a large number of admirers and detractors during his time at both Real Madrid and with his previous club, Manchester United. For all of the excellence Ronaldo has achieved, perhaps the marked difference between Messi and him is that Messi’s sole focus is on the game he plays. That is not to say that Ronaldo is in any way distracted when he plays, but we know he cares about his public perception and the way he carries himself.

There is little to suggest that Messi feels the same way. The beIN Sport commentator Ray Hudson, among others, continually refers to Messi as “a little boy,” which is a somewhat peculiar label for a 26-year-old man. It used to be that it was a mark of his age, as Messi broke in relatively young and left an indelible, immediate impact. Now, however, the phrase refers to the boundless curiosity and wonder with which Messi plays the game, much like a young boy knocking around a rubber ball barefoot in the street with his friends. That is the way Messi plays with Barcelona, where his friends happen to include the likes of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. He maintains an air of immeasurable, unbridled enthusiasm whenever he is in motion with the ball at his feet. He only ever wants to be on or near a soccer pitch and seems aloof, even uncomfortable, whenever he is not. Just look at his face in the header picture: that trophy ball is made of gold. There is no way he can do any of the magical acts with it that he does with all the rest, yet his eyes are set on it, unwavering, like a dog following the ball in an owner’s hand.

Messi’s critics say that he is at least partially the product of the Barcelona system, that he would be half the player, if that, without Xavi, Iniesta and the rest. They say he is incapable of the same art in his right foot, the weaker of the two, that he constantly produces with his left. They say he cannot win internationally, perhaps the strongest of the arguments against his historical standing. It is true that Barcelona has produced incredible, team-based football and that Messi has undoubtedly benefited from perhaps the best passing midfielder ever. This sport is a team game, however, and unlike many other world class individuals, Messi has never abandoned his senior side for more money and envisions himself retiring at the only club he has known since he left Argentina as a 13-year-old. As seen in the goal above, one of the most legendary in his growing catalog of majestic scoring alchemy, it seems possible that Messi can score with his weaker foot, albeit less frequently and with naturally less power than the left. Here is a very thorough and interesting breakdown of Messi’s 234 goals at Barcelona as of March 21, 2012, for the Soccernomics-types.

That leaves the question of his international viability. He has yet to win a World Cup, although he did take home a gold medal for his underrated performance in Argentina’s run at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Diego Maradona, the former footballing king of Argentina and, along with Pelé, disputed best player ever, single-handedly carried his side to the world championship in 1986. He scored a particularly spellbinding goal in the quarterfinal against England, dubbed the “goal of the century,” which spawned a direct comparison when Messi nearly duplicated it frame-for-frame in a match (Also of note: Messi scored this goal with his right foot).

Messi-to-Maradona comparisons run wild, even with the players’ hugely contrasting personas off the field. That could just be the difference which enables Messi to surpass Maradona in the all-time spectrum, even without a World Cup. Although Maradona’s outrageous highs, both on the pitch and off of it, arguably reached higher than anyone else, he could not sustain his greatness for as long as Messi may, barring long-term injury. Messi does not allow for any of the outside influences Maradona carried, with his unyielding discipline and an adherence to temperance in every area of his life outside of goal-scoring.

Pelé won three World Cups with Brazil, something another individual player may very well never again achieve, but he was a product of his time, a player far ahead of his contemporaries. It could be argued that he was not even the best individual player on two of the three championship sides, as an early injury to Pelé allowed the best dribbler of all-time, Garrincha, to carry Brazil in 1962, and Carlos Alberto seized the spotlight in 1970 with one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Messi has an outside chance of catching Pelé’s mark of 1281 goals scored if he maintains something close to his current rate in professional soccer. Although Argentina’s current crop of forwards and wingers is as impressive as any in the world, if not better, the midfield and defense are severely lacking the potency Brazil’s sides had in the twelve years of Pelé’s international reign.

Having said all of that, if Messi can carry Argentina to a 1986-style march through the 2014 World Cup in Pelé’s backyard, the world may finally be ready to accept him as the best there ever was. Maradona seems poised to accept that fact and crown Messi as his proper successor, even if Pelé cannot.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can personally pay to the diminutive Argentinian, whom I admittedly already consider to be the single best player ever, is that when he draws comparisons to video game versions of himself (from the likes of Arsène Wenger, no less) the comparisons are unfair to Messi because he is actually better than his virtual counterpart. He can do things with the ball that the FIFA developers at EA Sports will be studying and trying to replicate, unsuccessfully, for years to come. There simply are not enough buttons on the controller for everything Messi can do. His creativity is without parallel, and his eye for the back of the net sees in 20/2 vision.

The amount of success he has already achieved, from his break into the senior Barcelona team, through the spectacular Pep Guardiola years and into the present, is awe-inspiring, certainly. Given his age, unique skill set and the cast of complementary characters surrounding him at both club and national levels, Lionel Messi may very well have left the best for the future. As tough as it is for La Liga defenders to do so, keep an eye on this man, especially with Neymar now at his side. He is running circles around history at his own pace, so far ahead of the curve that he is going in a straight line.

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