“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.
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.
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.