“He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” – David Bowie, “Starman“
But for the hopeful benevolence of one of the oligarchical Spanish soccer clubs in 2000, we would never have arrived here. A trial, a napkin contract and several seasons of sustained brilliance in one of the world’s foremost leagues and, indeed, the world’s foremost footballing continent have brought us to the only conclusion possible. With his fifth FIFA Ballon d’Or award arriving on Monday, Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player ever.
What little question remained in the minds of trolls and detractors has been erased, albeit at the hands of an increasingly transparent hub of international sporting corruption. In bars and elsewhere, debates will continue to boil over, simply because people enjoy discussing this sort of thing rather than thinking about, say, an impending audit.
As early as 2009, Spanish sporting newspaper Marca declared Messi a legend. At the time, the Argentinian was 21 years old, an age at which preternatural genius seems to become apparent in many cases. Messi’s always been different, however. He isn’t Bob Dylan, surveying a cultural landscape before turning it on its head, nor is he Bobby Fischer, whose success in the chess world seemed predestined.
Messi’s thorough dominance in God’s sport appears either divine or alien, and, at times, both. Discounting the lucky breaks he’s had along the way, most notably his discovery with Newell’s Old Boys by a big, European club prepared to shoulder the financial burden of his necessary human growth hormone injections, discredits how far he has come as a player.
On the pitch, his game-changing ability has become so consistently impactful that we sometimes overlook it, in the same way a Steph Curry Vined three-pointer from another galaxy has become omnipresent nearly to the point of being passé°. We marvel at the one-man charges through entire defenses, the way he dances in rhythm to the salsa in his mind when it looks like everyone else is listening to the State of the Union. I mean, just look at this shit:
This dude is literally standing still after the pass from Dani Alves at the 0:08 second mark. He then sets off on a Sherman-esque stampede, burning four defenders to the ground. As if it isn’t enough, Messi goes through the same guy twice¹, the second time nutmegging him just for kicks. How Garrincha of him.
Have we as a people finally reached the point of being able to address Messi as, at the very least, the greatest player of his generation without regard to anyone else? No? Alright. Two possible critiques will likely follow Messi forever, unless something drastic changes, and possibly even if it does.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the only man who has ever challenged Messi’s throne since roughly 2009 – you know, when Messi was declared a legend at 21 – and always seemed poised to seize it for good. 2013 and ’14 aside, however, it is now Ronaldo who improbably fills the negative space around Messi.
Ronaldo had all the advantages Messi did not and has excelled at every stage on which he’s played. He also seems like a nicer guy than a lot of people give him credit for, or maybe just than a lot of people are willing to admit. It makes for a better story when the hero is nice, and the villain is petulant. In any case, Messi has surpassed Ronaldo in prominence and influence on the game; the only arena Ronaldo owns between the two of them now concerns the sale of men’s undergarments.
The other major point of detraction, the only line item curiously empty on his résumé, is the lack of a World Cup on behalf of Argentina. This omission hardly speaks to his proficiency as a player; it isn’t his fault he carried a ragged, injury-riddled crew of miscreants to the 2014 World Cup Final only to lose 1-0 on a goal in extra time to one of the more dominant sides in history, a pot that had been boiling over on the stove for several years under Spanish rule. For his efforts, at least, Messi received the Golden Ball as the most outstanding player of the tournament. It was hardly a consolation prize, instead more like Robin Williams repeatedly telling Matt Damon, “It’s not your fault.“²
Analyze all of the stats you want. God knows they’re there for the processing. In this age of sabermetrics and advanced statistical analysis of any sort, you can find a stat to fit your criteria without too much trouble: Masterson, you low-brow nitwit, Messi’s never scored a goal in the rain at Huddlesfield on a Wednesday evening with Barcelona down a man! How DARE you stake such a claim as this? All other things being equal, the stats speak for themselves, and in their own language.
We don’t have to do anything now. Messi has done it for us, in wonderfully mesmerizing fashion.³ He walks with a swagger he never used to have, perhaps the byproduct of grotesquely pious tattoos, another thing he’s got that Ronaldo hasn’t. Messi’s earned the right to some edge, anyway. When you climb to the top of the mountain and look out over the sea, thank your lucky stars and starmen for the chance to have walked the planet with the greatest.
°Steph Curry Vined three-pointers from other galaxies will never become passé, which is exactly the point.
¹Names removed to protect the innocent.
²By the way, where was Ronaldo at that point? Oh, right: Portugal didn’t even make it out of its group, and Ronaldo hasn’t been to a major tournament final with his country since Euro 2004, his first with the national team. They lost in an upset to Greece.
³Here are your built-in counterarguments, just in case: Pelé is a walking billboard; Maradona is a coked-up hack; Di Stefano’s dead. We finally did it.