For the third consecutive summer, the Argentina national team made it to the final of a major international competition, only to lose by another impossibly thin margin. The greatest player in the world missed his penalty, and the Skip Bayless proxies on social media went to task, questioning the player’s and his team’s toughness as well as their lack of the clutch gene, that peculiar strand of DNA which allows select Homo sapiens the ability to complete tasks in children’s playground games under artificially important circumstances.
In the immediate aftermath of that loss, a 0-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa América Final at MetLife Stadium last Sunday chock-full of deplorable officiating, Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football, only 29 years old and still in the midst of a white-hot prime. Whether the retirement ends up being permanent is likely in the hands of the Argentine Football Association, which has taken a number of crucial missteps while ostensibly advocating for one of its greatest generations of players. Even insofar as Messi is to blame for a single penalty miss, Messi is still not to blame, and he is still the greatest outfield player ever to knock a ball around a pitch. If that ends up being his last work in the light blue and white stripes, however, a hole nevertheless remains.
“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.
On Wednesday, FC Porto, last year’s third-place Portuguese club who only made it into the UEFA Champions League by virtue of the Play-off round, beat reigning Bundesliga kings Bayern Munich, with noted machinist Pep Guardiola at the managerial helm. The German giants had lost only three games all season coming into the match, depending on when you started counting, and looked poised to similarly dismantle the ostensibly outmatched Porto. But a funny thing happened on the way to the semi-final.
A magnificently threaded through-ball eludes four nearby defenders to find, all alone in the opposing box, the world’s best soccer player, who dances with his mistress for a moment long enough to attract the attention of an entire defense, along with the world. A shot on goal ricochets under the goalkeeper, whose effort provided only the briefest moment of respite preceding the inevitable. A trailing teammate, a regular on the B squad, tracks the ball and slots it into the back of an empty net, winning the game for his dominant side at an abnormally late time.
This was the scene in Sunday’s match between FC Barcelona and Villarreal. For the Catalans, these moments are a dime a dozen. With Lionel Messi, all is possible except for failure, which is a distinct and unacceptable impossibility. My adulation for him, at this point, goes without saying. In this case, the focus belongs to the other two players involved in the movement, Brazil’s fallen hero Neymar, the catalyst, and the Barça B wunderkind Sandro Ramírez, who scored the goal, his first ever for the senior side and in his first La Liga appearance. At just 22 and nineteen years of age, respectively, these two (literally, at times) have the world at their feet, leaving the rest of us to admire immortality and ponder its antithesis.
On Thursday, the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins in Brazil. While many eyes will be on the home team, which is the nominal favorite to capture its record-extending sixth World Cup title, thirty-one other teams will be vying to bring the glory of the beautiful game’s most hallowed prize to their homelands. Many of these sides have legendary players in various stages of their primes. Some seem simply to be along for the experience of playing on a senior international level as a sort of deposit for the future (See: Green, Julian). For all the acclaim of Brazil’s joga bonito, Italy’s azzurri and Die Mannschaft of Germany, two individual players are carrying the weight of their countries perhaps more heavily than anyone else, with the outcome of the tournament potentially dictating their places among the game’s all-time greatest.
I am, of course, talking about Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
Courtesy of Soccerroomtoday.com
When anyone mentions La Liga, the top soccer division in Spain, in the United States, the most popular notion which comes to mind is the FC Barcelona-Real Madrid dichotomy which has ruled the country and succeeded in European play for decades. The last team other than these two to win La Liga was a Mista-led Valencia squad in 2003-’04, a season in which Barcelona finished second and Real Madrid finished fourth. Incredibly, Madrid (32) and Barcelona (22) have accounted for 54 out of a possible 81 La Liga championships since the inception of the league in 1929, and the two best players in the world, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo, keep these teams at the vanguard of Spanish football thought. This season may just end the decade-long reign of those two clubs, however, as a powerful team has emerged just south of Real’s Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.
Courtesy of inthestands.co.uk
With Saturday’s 6-3 home victory over league-leading Arsenal, the Manchester City Football Club now sits at third in the Barclays Premier League table, with 32 points. City, as the team is colloquially called by admirers and detractors alike, is in exceptional form as of late: earlier in the week, the team defeated defending UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich in a come-from-behind 3-2 victory in Bavaria. Even more surprising than all of this, however, may be the state of Manchester City’s biggest and closest rivals, Manchester United. By far the most successful team in Premier League history, United is under the direction of a manager not named Sir Alex Ferguson for the first time since 1986, and the team is firmly in the middle of the table, a full ten points behind its cross-town rivals. People are already calling for the head of Ferguson’s successor on a plate, and the tide in Manchester is facing a Lakers/Clippers-like shift for the first time ever.
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.
Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.
–Robert Harrick, “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”
For the better part of the last five years, at least since Euro 2008 signaled the dawn of a Spanish renaissance in the sport, the Spanish men’s national football team has ridden a possession-heavy, triangular passing-based game to great success and historic heights, and not only by Spanish standards. The style they have made their own, affectionately dubbed tiki-taka for its quick passing, had its roots in the Ajax/Netherlands “total football” system of the 1970s. When the greatest Dutch player ever, Johann Cruyff, became FC Barcelona’s manager in 1988, he brought the total football mentality with him and placed the greatest burden in the field on his most talented midfielder, Josep Guardiola. Guardiola ascended to the throne at Barcelona in June 2008 and left it four years later having put together perhaps the greatest list of accomplishments in any four-year span in the history of club soccer.