Attempting to do justice to the genius of Messi
Published: 14.11.12 / Written by: David Gold
Probably the most fitting way to do justice to the remarkable achievements of Barcelona’s Argentine genius Leo Messi, is that breaking significant milestones and setting records has become routine.
The second goal against Real Mallorca on Sunday, which took Messi past Pele’s record of 75 goals in a calendar year with Santos and Brazil in 1958, had an inevitability about it. You just knew he would pass the landmark sooner rather than later. Next up is the all time record, held by Gerd Müller, the West Germany and Bayern Munich forward who struck 85 times in 1972.
With a month to go until La Liga goes on its winter break, most will expect Messi to go and break that record. The most surprising thing about Messi is when he fails to achieve the remarkable. Whether it is becoming the most prolific club level scorer in Europe in a season, the all time La Liga goalscoring record, being the Champions League’s top scorer for four years in a row or becoming Barcelona’s all time top scorer, the Argentine’s brilliance is rooted in how ordinary the extraordinary has become where he is concerned.
Which made what happened last season, in the Champions League semi final second leg at home to Chelsea, when he had the chance to put his team 3-1 ahead and in control of the game, so remarkable. In the event he struck the bar – a pivotal miss which helped cost his side the chance to become the first team to retain the competition in 20 years. For most players, missing a penalty, even a crucial one, is an occupational hazard which can be overlooked. Even Cristiano Ronaldo can miss from the spot. Yet when Messi did it, there was shock – he was human, after all.
But only just. Messi continues to raise standards beyond all expectations, and it is hard to keep up with his remarkable exploits. He is not just a generation defining player, such as a Zinedine Zidane, Rivaldo or Romário. Messi is already on a pantheon above, one of the greats; among the likes of Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Garrincha and Eusebio. Many already put him on a level with, or above even, Diego Maradona and Pele.
Such comparisons are easily made but difficulty to justify. It is a feature of football that we will always seek to compare cross generations, teams, players and managers. But any player or team is shaped by the factors around them. Today, training is more professional, tactics more developed, youth systems and scouting networks more developed.
There is still a need to justify and explain Messi’s sheer talent in order to explain his significance in football history. But the best thing about the Barcelona player though, is the simplicity and normality of his play. Anyone who has played football at school will remember players able to simply dribble past opponents at will and score goals on their own. However, as youngsters mature tactically and grow physically, those players found their ability to simply make something out of nothing disappear. No longer were they able to induce havoc in opposition defences which were organised and made up of strong and intelligent players.
For Messi, he has never lost that. He is small, but it is easy to overlook just how slight he is. Barely 5”8 in height and just over 10 stone, in physical terms he is very, very average. I’m pretty much the same height and weight as Messi.
Yet for the Rósario born genius, he is able to play with the same childlike enthusiasm for the game, with the ability to drift past opponents like they are not there, as individuals ten years younger. Sublime close control and possibly the quickest feet ever to kick a ball are the reasons for that; Messi retains the ability to trick opponents into believing that they can tackle him, to give them that split second of hope before dashing it with a flick right or left, and a moment later he is beyond them. That underlines the bravery and brilliance of Messi. Bravery because his ability to go past players is a result of the way he draws challenges, and tempts opponents into tackles. But to do that you must take the ball very close to a defender to give them that illusion. Yet Messi has the brilliance to then take it past his man with regularity and ease.
In the rush to proclaim Messi the greatest already, comparisons are made with the game’s biggest stars of the past – Diego Maradona and Pele in particular (although the average Brazilian would likely place Garrincha above both). It is though impossible to know just what heights Messi will reach. He has the opportunity to match both Pele and Mardona in 2014, with Argentina starting to get the best out of him, and they look as good a bet as anyone to win the World Cup if their present form continues. Given the age of their players, that seems more likely than not. History will judge Messi far more accurately than any journalist can today – for the time being, we should celebrate and enjoy watching one of the most remarkable talents to have played the game.