In terms of football, the year of 2012 finished moments ago and it was incredible for one reason and one reason only: Lionel Andrés Messi.
Pundits and people alike all talk of the greatest of all time or asking whether he is better than Cristiano Ronaldo, that’s where people’s perceptions are in the wrong place. You need to ask yourself, can he get better than the level he is at right now? He hasn’t won a world cup single-handedly like Maradona or had the luck to play alongside some of the world’s greatest players for Brasil like Pele but here is someone that just scored 91 goals in one year. It wasn’t in an unknown league on the sub-continent, this has occurred for the best team in the world as the world’s current best player. Surrounded by some of the current greatest players of this generation he has excelled in a role he has carved out for himself: the lynch-pin the focal point, the false nine, the free role, the ‘Messi role’. This is not a place to waste time making comparisons but to reflect on what we have available to us right now. Could you imagine what it would be like being born 20 years from now and not growing up having seen Messi play? This is a huge reason just to admire and be happy with what we have and not to make him something he isn’t or get caught up in time wasting conjecture.
His first football coach at Grandoli Sports Centre No 8 was urged to play Messi by his Grandmother. After some persuasion, Messi’s Mother allowed him to play, but in the age group above. It was this acceptance from his Mother that let his coach, Oscar Lopez and other children from the neighbourhood see what a special talent he was. His first action with the ball wasn’t your usual one. Sat in the middle of the pitch playing with stones until the ball bounced towards him. He jumped up, controlled the ball and dribbled it away in the same vein you see now for Barcelona. He may not have scored that day but from then on he turned into a goal machine playing with the older boys.
“He seemed to create pictures of what he wanted to do in his head and then make them reality on the pitch. He was just born with this talent. You can’t teach it.” Jorge Lopez
That’s the thing, you can’t teach it. All the great players were great before we all knew it. Training can help you hone your accuracy or strength but natural ability is exactly that.
A shy, caring, unnaturally small boy but with courage and determination that left an impression on anyone that met him. Messi is the same now as he was 20 years ago back in Rosario. It is this humble-ness that leaves you in even more admiration of him as any other player would have let it get to their heads and tarnish their reputation as a person first; footballer second. Messi’s stock was rising and it caught the eye of Newell’s Old Boys number two coach Claudio Vivas who made the trip to the training centre in the heart of Rosario. It was here that he saw something special as Messi was now under the stewardship of Grandoli Sports Centre No 8’s new coach Gabriel Digerolamo. He was putting a team off 11-12 year olds together and was asked if he had space for one more. From there, the rest was history.
“He was from another world. He dribbled with the ball so closely it was like watching someone who had been given years of training in how to do it. He played like he does now, dribbling and scoring lots of goals. He was brilliant at anticipating what his team mates, his opponents and the goalkeeper would do.” Gabriel Digerolamo
Digerolamo went down the unusual route of playing Messi as a sweeper. An astute tactic when you get past the surface as with the ability that Messi has, it was the natural place to put him as he could dribble past the entire team from the half way line which is not dissimilar from what occurs at Barcelona from time-to-time. Messi’s next coach played him as a defensive midfielder and it was from here that he would go on to score over 100 goals that season and for the following seasons after.
Every coach that had the honour of honing Messi’s talents all had the same worry; Messi was far too short for his age and he wasn’t growing like the other boys. While playing for Newell’s Old Boys, the doctors at the club urged Messi’s Parents to speak to a child growth expert. After a year of examining Messi, Doctor Schwarzstein had found the hormone deficiency that was hampering Messi’s height and began a course of injecting the missing hormone. Over the next two years, Messi grew at a ‘normal’ rate and his confidence increased in line with his height. However at a pricey £300-£650 per month, which wasn’t a problem during the 90’s as it was covered by the Government, but come the year 2000 Argentina was in the midst of quite severe fiscal troubles. Without this funding Messi’s treatments could not be paid for by his family and Newell’s couldn’t help him either. River Plate were very interested in Messi’s services but weren’t in a financial position to cover the treatment. The only team that showed a concrete interest and were willing to fund his medical bills were Barcelona after Scouts had become aware of Messi’s talent. They offered Messi a trial and after a family meeting and the famous ‘napkin contract’, Messi and his Father moved to Spain.
“In Barcelona, on the 14th of December of 2000 and in the presence of Josep Minguella and Horacio (Gaggioli), Carles Rexach, FCB technical secretary, it commits under his responsibility and despite some views against it to sign the player Lionel Messi, as long we stick to the amounts agreed upon.”
At 13 years old, this was the first time that Barcelona had signed such a young talent from abroad and it wasn’t long before he was turning heads at La Masia. Growing up alongside Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, they formed a formidable side in the youth leagues and while Pique and Fabregas moved to England, Messi made his official debut as a 16 year old in 2003 against Porto. It wasn’t until the 16th October 2004 that he started breaking more records in becoming the youngest player in La Liga when he made his professional debut against Espanyol.
The Start Of Something Special
The 2005/2006 season was the season that Lionel Messi signed a contract extension as a first team player and let him play alongside the best player around at that time in Ronaldinho. They forged quite the partnership and Messi received a standing ovation when he was substituted as the fans recognised the shining star within their squad. Messi’s season ended prematurely when he was injured against Chelsea in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge. The tournament that Barcelona ended up winning that season.
Messi started the next season a stronger player and it was this season he established himself as a first-team player. Anyone involved in his past knew that this was always inevitable but to displace current members of the Barcelona squad, on paper at least, seemed difficult. It was this season that his scoring exploits became apparent and he ended the season with 14 in 26 matches. He starred in El Clasico, scoring a hat-trick to give 10 man Barcelona the draw in a fantastic 3-3 match.
In an already career defining season, Messi went on to score one of the best goals that anyone has ever seen and he didn’t help the ‘New Maradona’ tag he had been labelled with. Against Getafe Messi took the ball from the half way line, beat 6 players and slotted home with ease. There have been comparisons with Maradona in the past but this goal was nearly identical to the goal Maradona scored against England in the 1986 World Cup.
The following 2007-2008 season saw Messi start to receive the plaudits that he deserved. The Spanish press were calling for him to be named the best player in the world and various figures in football echoed those sentiments. However he finished third in the Ballon d’Or behind Kaka and eventual winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi suffered a fourth thigh injury in three seasons and it kept him out of the side for quite a while. There were claims that his hormone deficiency was the cause however since then there has not been a recurrence and that’s for the better of everyone. Messi finished the season with 16 goals and 13 assists, the former number continued to grow and it still is.
In 2008-2009, Messi took the number 10 shirt from the departing Ronaldinho. Along with taking the number, he also inherited his responsibility. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge knew that this would never be an issue for Messi and it couldn’t have been compounded better with another record-breaking season on the way. Messi scored 9 Champions League goals, won his first Copa Del Rey, scored twice in a 6-2 Real Madrid battering and scored in the Champions League final to give Barcelona the final cup to claim a historic treble. This was the first time that it had happened in Spanish history and Messi went on to finish the season with 38 goals and 18 assists in all competitions.
“He is a unique player. The best player I’ve ever seen and I think we’ll ever see.” Pep Guardiola
He’s been called the best for a number of years now and when a player of Guardiola’s calibre can have such superlatives, it is only correct that a €250m buy out clause was included in Messi’s contract extension. He signed until 2016 and has always said that he never wants to leave Barcelona. When you’re on such a tangent as a player, there’s no reason to leave when you have Xavi and Iniesta playing with you.
Messi went on to win the FIFA World Player of the Year title as well as scoring his first 4 goal haul in a single match against Arsenal. Those Champions League goals took Messi past Rivaldo as the competition’s top scorer for a Barcelona player. He also equalled Ronaldo’s record of 34 league goals and for a second year in a row was named La Liga’s player of the year. His goal and assist tally for this season finished on 47 and 11 respectively.
Season after season Messi has improved and has not stopped breaking records. The 2010-2011 season was no different in helping Barcelona have a 16 match unbeaten run. In April of that season he surpassed his 47 goal tally from last season and went on to score a colossal 53 goals as well as providing 24 assists. On the way to this figure, Messi scored one of the greatest and my personal favourite El Clasico goals (albeit in the Champions League).
Messi went on to score 12 Champions League goals that season which is only 2 away from the all-time record of 14 by José Alfatini. His exploits did not go unnoticed by the Ballon d’Or panel, which awarded him the accolade for the second year in a row.
A Record Breaking Year
The 2011-2012 season became one of folklore for many reasons but one that’s been highlighted continually in the press. From numbers alone, Messi has got better and better year on year and there is no one out there at his level. The start of this season saw Messi score 3 against Real Madrid to help lift the Spanish Supercup and then score again in the European Supercup to claim that trophy too.
You’d think there wouldn’t be many more records to break but it was this season that he overtook Lázló Kubala as Barcelona’s La Liga (132) and all competitions (194) top goalscorer. It wasn’t long after that he scored his 200th goal for Barcelona and it’s crazy to think he has achieved this at the tender age of 24. Messi won his second World Club Cup and again shined by scoring two and overshadowing the prodigious talent that is Neymar. Messi then broke another record by becoming the first player to score 5 goals in a Champions League game in a 7-1 demolition of Bayer Leverkusen.
It was in March of that season that he became Barcelona’s all time leading goalscorer by scoring his 233rd goal in all competitions. He then equalled the Champions League record of 14 goals mentioned earlier. Had he not missed that penalty against Chelsea, he would have most likely put Barcelona through and beat that record also.
In May during the run up to the end of the season, Messi overtook Gerd Müller’s record of 67 goals in a season by scoring a hat-trick against Málaga. It was his seventh hat-trick of the season and confirmed him as the best goalscorer in a single European season. He went on to score in the Copa Del Rey final, winning Guardiola his last trophy as Barcelona manager and finished the season with 73 goals and 29 assists in all competitions. His La Liga tally was 50 and 16 respectively.
To cap off his most amazing season yet, Messi won the Ballon d’Or for the third time in a row (equalling Platini) and was named UEFA’s Best Player in Europe. He beat his compatriots Xavi and Iniesta to both awards, to which he said was for them as much as it was for himself.
The current season is only half way through but it wasn’t without its records. Messi surpassed Pelé’s record of 75 goals in a calendar year to move within 9 of Gerd Müller’s record. In December Messi scored twice against Athletic Bilbao which helped him equal César Rodriguez’s record of 190 La Liga goals for Barcelona. It wasn’t long before he surpassed both Müller’s and Rodriguez’s records by scoring another brace against Real Betis. Müller’s was a record that stood since 1972 and it’s a privilege to have been around to witness such magic.
“My record stood for 40 years – 85 goals in a year – and now the best player in the world has broken it, and I’m delighted for him. He is an incredible player, gigantic.” Gerd Müller
Messi’s goalscoring exploits did not stop here as he ended the calendar year with 91 goals, a feat I can only see be bettered by Messi alone. He was then again rewarded with a contract extension until 2018, at which point he will be 31 and no doubt have broken a plethora of records.
Lionel Messi is the best player in the world and that is undoubted. To compare him with Cristiano Ronaldo, who himself is a brilliant player, is nonsensical. Playing the numbers game, it is clear to see who is the better player but it’s not always about that. Messi has the balance, touch, speed and agility of a player that hasn’t been seen for decades. He resembles what Maradona showed the world during his time in the game but do not mistake this as a comparison to who is the better player. This isn’t about that. This is about realising what we have right now and appreciating that he is the best at what he does.
It must be irksome for great players of the past however Johann Cruyff said it best:
“Messi obviously could not be compared to me as he is a completely different type of player; he is more in the mould of Maradona. What everyone should be especially happy about is that every era has its own heroes. Why would one be less than the other? Pele was a hero in his time, I was in my period and Messi’s time is now. He is a joy to behold. Instead of comparing, we should just be really happy that we are able to enjoy players like Messi and Ronaldo today.”