Lionel Messi: Magic in his feet
The best footballer in the world – some say the best ever – arrives on these shores next week, and the game is agog at what he might do
The good news for Arsenal fans, whose team face Barcelona next week in the Champions League, is that Leo Messi is human. The bad news is that he isn't always.
We've seen both, man and superman, in the past week. Against Zaragoza last Sunday, as against Stuttgart five days earlier and against Valencia three days before that, there seemed no force on earth capable of stopping him. It seemed unfair; it felt as if, for the good of the game, he should be handicapped, obliged to carry weights in his underpants, or something. Eight goals the Argentinian scored in those three games, half of them works of art that people will be gawping at in museums centuries from now. The upshot was a glut of global babble about whether Messi might now be considered the best player in history, above and beyond his compatriot Diego Maradona.
The best thing about this debate is that it seems to have put to bed the silly question of whether Messi is the best player in the world right now. Anyone who imagines that Cristiano Ronaldo is better is either uninformed or tribally prejudiced. Or just plain football dumb. Ronaldo can make something out of something – a goal from a free kick, a long-distance shot when a gap opens, a towering header in the penalty box – with awesome regularity. Messi makes something out of nothing all the time.
Well, not all the time. In a league game against Osasuna on Wednesday night he was, by his standards, pedestrian. Barcelona won but the headlines in the Spanish newspapers next morning were "Messi didn't score!". Yet the fact that this was the sporting day's news was only further testament to his genius. Yes, genius. That is what Fabio Capello, the England manager, has called him, noting that by contrast Ronaldo (a bit of a lump on the ball, frankly, alongside Messi's watery naturalness) was merely a player "of an extremely high level".
Messi is a creature as biologically adapted to play football as a shark is to smell blood, a salmon to swim upstream, a squirrel to gather nuts. Yet even a shark, a salmon or a squirrel can have a bad day. Einstein had days when the sums didn't add up, Mozart when the tune wouldn't spring to his head. Arsenal may get lucky in one of their two Champions League quarter-finals, but in both – difficult. Look at the statistics: Messi is the top scorer in Spain, with 34 goals in all competitions; he has made the most passes for goal (way more than Ronaldo); and he has the cleanest record of completed passes in the Spanish league.
Talking of squirrels, that is how he moves with the ball at his feet. Startling acceleration from a still position, but tremendous breaking power too. The secret of the embarrassment he causes defenders when he is on a run, performing the classic footballing art of the dribble like no one ever has done before, comes from a combination of blind speed off the mark with the ability to stop dead in his tracks, then turn and accelerate again. He also has the fastest feet in the game and, quite possibly, the fastest brain. For, in a Barcelona team that retains possession far longer than any other team in Europe and that last season won every title they went in for, he is the master of the killer pass.
Messi can be on the ball with three defenders crowded round him (it is a rash manager who puts fewer than three on him) but have the speed of vision to see the team-mate who is free, and then the sheer talent to place the ball with a marksman's accuracy and perfect weight at his feet.
He is best known as a goalscorer now, though when he began in the Barcelona first team aged 16 he was regarded chiefly as a winger. But when eventually he slows down (the Zaragoza coach said the other day that he was "like Maradona, but far faster") he will most likely become the best midfield orchestra conductor in the business.
As if all that were not enough, he is, as his coach Pep Guardiola never tires of reminding people, a team player too. No prima donna, he does not act as Ronaldo or his Barcelona team-mate Thierry Henry do when they lose the ball; he does not sulk, or berate the referee, implying that the only possible way that the ball could have been taken away from him was by foul play, or glance up at the heavens as if to say how, God, could you commit the divine injustice of allowing a player as great as me to be dispossesed. He just gets on with it, tracks back and battles as hard as the doughtiest midfielder to regain possession. Which he does again and again. There must be few out-and-out forwards, if any, who win as many tackles as he does. And he is brave in his willingness always to receive the ball, to help out a team-mate in tough straits. Messi does not hide.
The surprising thing is that there is so little of him. Ronaldo is a born athlete. A tall Greek god with good looks to boot (an accusation never levelled at Messi) who had he been born in New Zealand might today be rugby's finest fly-half. Messi could only have made it in football, the most democratic of games. With him "something out of nothing" is the key thought. Both concerning what he does on the field of play – conjuring goals that ordinarily brilliant players would not dare to imagine – and his life.
A large part of the reason why he fetched up in Barcelona aged 13 was that, in contrast to the Argentinian club he came from, the Catalans were prepared to cough up the money required to pay for years of growth hormone treatment. He stands 5ft 6in and weighs barely 10 stone – one wonders what he would have looked like without the daily injections in the thigh that punctuated his early adolescence.
History is full of people who more than compensated for their small size with big personalities. Messi does not have that either. He comes exuberantly alive when he has a ball nearby (a former Argentinian national manager, Carlos Bilardo, once said that if you did an X-ray of Messi you'd find a round object attached to the end of his left foot), but otherwise he is timid, he slouches, he does not catch the eye. Even those closest to him report that he is shy, and as for journalists who do interviews with him (this one has done it twice), pulling teeth does not begin to explain how excruciatingly frustrating the exercise is.
Yet there is an inner steel there. And he showed it as a young boy on arrival in Barcelona. He had been brought up in Rosario, an unglamorous industrial city 250 miles north of Buenos Aires where he lived with his father, a factory worker, mother, two brothers and a grandmother to whom he was devoted. It was she who took him to play organised football for the first time, aged barely four, convincing the coach to take him though he was far smaller and two years younger than the rest of the boys.
It was tough for him to leave his warm family environment, and the only town he had known, at the age of 13 for a city a day's flight away. But when his parents left it to him to decide whether to take up the Barcelona offer ("Christ, who's that?" exclaimed Charlie Rexach, the club's youth chief, on first seeing him play), he opted to do so, though he knew he'd have to battle his shyness, homesickness and the challenge of being a young little stranger in a strange land. There he revealed a drive and a desire that have never left him, for each season he improves on his last. No discipline is more competitive than that of the football player.
There might be thousands who aspire to be great opera singers or prima ballerinas; hundreds of thousands who would wish to play tennis like Roger Federer or swim like Michael Phelps or write like V S Naipaul. But there are millions upon millions of children and adults who play football and dream of being professional players. And Messi, scrutinised every week by those very same millions with the eye of a scientist studying an insect, is at the very top of the heap, the best player there is.
And when the pressure is on, as in the Champions League final last year in which Barcelona dizzied Manchester United like a matador a bull, he stands up to be counted. Even Real Madrid acknowledge his worth. Had Messi been willing, they would have splashed out far more cash last summer for him than they did in breaking the world transfer record for Ronaldo.
Will he end up being judged alongside Maradona, and the other footballing deity, Pelé? Might he surpass them both? He has a road ahead. But he already has one foot on the pantheon. Which is quite remarkable enough, given that he is only 22.
A life in brief
Born: 24 June 1987, Rosario, Argentina.
Family: His father, Jorge Horacio Messi, was a factory worker, and mother, Celia Maria Messi, a part-time cleaner. Lionel has two older brothers, Rodrigo and Matias, and a sister, Maria Sol.
Early Life: Introduced to football at an early age by his family. His father was a coach at the local club, Grandoli. Diagnosed with a growth deficiency at 11, his treatment was paid for by Barcelona FC after he impressed them at a trial. They facilitated his move to Spain to join the club's youth team.
Career: Made his La Liga debut for Barcelona against Espanyol when he was 17 years old. His breakthrough season came in 2006/07, when he established himself as a first team regular, scoring 14 times in 26 matches. Voted Fifa World Player of the Year in 2009, he made his 200th appearance for Barcelona in a league match against Osasuna last weekend. He will also be a key feature in the Argentinian team for this summer's Fifa World Cup.
He says: "Something deep in my character allows me to take the hits and get on with trying to win."
They say: "I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius and he can become an even better player." Diego Maradona, former player and Argentina manager
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