I have been lucky enough to see Lionel Messi play live for Barcelona on five occasions. In those games he has scored fourteen goals. They have ranged from tap-ins to free-kicks and have included just about every type of goal in between, bar a Stoke-like hoof-and-header effort. My favourites are from the first time I went to Camp Nou, in December 2010. A friend and I sat through the first half of Barcelona’s destruction of Real Sociedad and remarked that Messi had been quiet. He appeared almost bored.
Then the two teams emerged from the tunnel and the second half kicked off. Almost immediately, Messi received the ball, played three consecutive one-twos with Dani Alves and rolled the ball under Claudio Bravo, into the net. Our jaws dropped. Later in the game, he dribbled past four defenders to add his second goal. I have never seen football made to look so astonishingly easy.
When you are the greatest footballer of all time, however, it really is that simple.
Having won his record-breaking fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or, the Argentine star ended all debate. He is indisputably the greatest footballer there has ever been. A select few have come close to matching the ludicrous consistency of his performances but none have quite managed it.
His statistics speak for themselves: 289 goals in 356 Barcelona appearances; 31 in 76 for Argentina. There are countless assists to add to those goals. He has won five La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, two Club World Cups, two Copa del Reys and an Olympic Gold medal. Perhaps the scariest fact of all is that he is only 25 years old.
To suggest that another player should have won the 2012 Ballon d’Or is akin to arguing that gravity does not exist or that the sun is actually quite cold. Overlooking such a phenomenal personal performance because important silverware was missing would be insane. Messi’s ninety-one goals in the calendar year – an average of 1.32 goals per game – saw him outscore most of the world’s top flight teams. Despite the best efforts of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrés Iniesta and company, Messi’s record was simply impossible to beat – again.
It is not just his record that makes him so popular. No-one falls in love with numbers, after all. More important is the fact that Messi produces beautiful football whenever he steps on to a pitch. In every game there is a goal, assist, pass or piece of movement that most players would count as the highlight of their career. Every time a ‘Best of Lionel Messi’ video is uploaded to YouTube, it is rendered out of date within three or four days.
His contemporaries are in no doubt. “It is clear that Messi is on a level above all others,” says Xavi, “Those who do not see that are blind.” Thierry Henry, a teammate until 2010, described a youngster still wet behind the ears as “the leader of this Barcelona team.” Luis Figo, a Real Madrid legend, said watching Messi play was “like having an orgasm.”
He is the best player in the greatest football team ever assembled. With Messi at the heart of their side, Barcelona have won numerous trophies including two of the last four Champions League tournaments. They would have won all four but for a volcanic eruption ruining their travel plans for the away leg versus Inter in 2010 and a freakish run of events against Chelsea in 2012. Messi was the Champions League’s top scorer in all four of those seasons.
Barcelona have accumulated their fair share of detractors since they began to dominate European football but very few actually dispute their place at the top of the tree. Theirs is the model to emulate. Messi is now the type of player everyone wants to produce. Of all his achievements to date, that may be his biggest.
When Messi was starting out, physique was the attribute every sensible manager focused on. Artful footballers with little pace or strength fell out of fashion and the latter stages of important tournaments were dour, unattractive affairs. 2004 saw José Mourinho’s Porto win the Champions League while Otto Rehhagel’s Greece side ground their way to an unlikely European Championship win. In the same year, Messi make his first team debut at Camp Nou.
Since then, technique has taken precedence. In addition to Barça’s aforementioned supremacy, Spain’s tiki-taka has won them two European crowns and a World Cup. While many of Messi’s Barcelona colleagues have participated in La Roja’s victories, the difference he makes to them is obvious. Despite having a similar game-plan at national level, his club-mates often look more fallible even though they still manage to win.
Their philosophy at international level is necessarily different: Barcelona have Messi, use their skill on the ball to supply him and simply attack; Spain do not have Messi, and there must use the ball more wisely, leading many to declare them boring.
While Messi is obviously perfect technically, his tactical excellence is often overlooked. He knows when to dribble toward goal and when to keep the ball; when to stay high up the pitch and when to come deep; when to move his markers left and when to move them right. Having apprenticed at La Masia, he understands how systems work and how to subtly reconfigure them in order to change a game. As he reaches his peak, he is growing into more of an on-field conductor.
Recognising this, Pep Guardiola often played him deeper in big matches, particularly against Real Madrid. When Guardiola was appointed, Barcelona had not won at the home of their bitterest rivals since 2005. With Messi pulling the strings, they were unbeaten at the Bernabéu under his management. Messi’s intelligence coupled with his clinical finishing and distribution tore Madrid to shreds every time the two sides met.
Messi has often been criticised for his lack of goals against English sides but this interpretation misunderstands his job in those games. Against teams who set up like Chelsea, Messi often plays as a provider – sometimes even as a decoy. In 2009, his coolness under pressure allowed him to tee up Andrés Iniesta for one of the most famous goals in the Barça’s history. At the Emirates in 2010, Messi twice drew Thomas Vermaelen out of Arsenal’s defence with brilliant off-the-ball runs, allowing Zlatan Ibrahimović to score two simple one-on-ones.
The other stick with which his critics beat him is his apparently poor international record. Again, this misunderstands his role: Messi rarely plays as the team’s main striker when he is with the Albiceleste. He is instead the team’s primary playmaker. In any case, 31 goals in 76 appearances is hardly poor. He has not won the World Cup and probably never will, but he cannot be held accountable for Argentina’s systemic shortcomings.
Watching South American football is like stepping into a time machine and emerging in 1982. The game there has barely changed in the last thirty years. With a high focus on individual flair and collective deference to the team’s playmaker, Argentina simply does not have the culture to produce the type of footballer to succeed in the modern era. While they have an ample number of attacking players, it must be said that they do not have a whole lot else. This often means Messi has to use his talents to drag the team through matches rather than play his natural game.
Under Alejandro Sabella, however, the tide may be turning. Messi has continued to be the team’s creative hub while bringing his Barcelona goalscoring record to the side. 2012 saw him score 12 goals in 9 international games. If he can sustain that form then he may well defy the odds and end Argentina's wait for World Cup glory. It would be the cherry on top of a monumentally impressive cake.
As football fans, we are blessed to have such a talent playing for our amusement. Let us hope that we can keep watching him for years to come – and that he will keep on getting better.