This is the first ‘Story of a Legend’ that features a player who is still playing in Europe and still at the height of his powers. In spite of trying not to exalt and ‘jinx’ a player midway through his career, so beyond doubt is his legendary status already that there is not really a good or bad time to write a profile feature on the life and career of Lionel Messi. As the incomparable, complete playmaker-forward hybrid that Messi is, there have already been countless features on his life on and off the pitch. The only thing is, it can’t really be overstated just how privileged we are to watch his journey unfold, and just how easy it is to take Messi for granted. We’ve had eras and glimpses of total football all over the globe at different points in time: 1960s and 70s Ajax and Holland, 1970s Brazil, Barcelona for the last decade. Bottle everything that these teams have possessed going forward – pace, power, elite technique, superior tactical knowledge and telepathic understanding of tempo, space, and positioning – into one enigmatic freak of football, and you get Messi.
It is sometimes said that Messi would have struggled to break through as a senior professional had it not been for the medical treatment he underwent as a tiny 11-year-old to help battle his growth hormone deficiency. Born in Rosario, Argentina on 24 June 1987, Messi spent his childhood as a physically underdeveloped footballing phenomenon, impressing so much at Newell’s Old Boys that he earned a move to Barcelona’s La Masia at the age of 11. But it’s hard not to think that even a physically stunted Messi who lacked the pace and power he currently possesses would still have made it at an elite level in world football. Instead of being the lethal penetrative dribbler, playmaker and finisher that he is now, Messi would still have been able to make use of his vision and passing ability to fit into a deeper playmaker role that has been occupied by the likes of the Xavi and Pirlo. Even as a tiny 10 year old, watching him play at La Masia, it’s clear that he already had the touch, the complete control. He had ‘it’…
It was at Barcelona where Messi’s career truly took off and flourished. He became the youngest player ever to play and score in La Liga for Barcelona, coming on as a substitute against Espanyol in October 2004 and scoring against Albacete Balompié in May 2005 at the age of 17 years, ten months and seven days. The next season, Messi’s hattrick in Barcelona’s 3-3 draw with Real Madrid forced Diego Maradona to declare that “I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius.”. As if to fulfil Maradona’s prophetic claim, just over one year later Messi scored one of his most memorable and historically significant goals of his career. Replicating Maradona’s famous goal in the 1986 World Cup against England, Messi dribbled from the halfway line past 5 players and the goalkeeper to score a scarcely believable goal against Getafe in the 2006-07 Copa del Rey. As teammate Deco described it, “These are the goals that go down in history. It is the most beautiful goal I’ve ever seen.”
By the time 21-year-old Messi ditched his number 19 shirt for the coveted number 10 (made available by the departing Ronaldinho), he had already racked up 42 goals, two La Liga titles, two Supercopas, and a Champions League title in 110 matches. It was at this point, though, that Messi’s career went into overdrive. Rather than bow under the pressure that the historic number 10 Barcelona shirt brought with it (players like Ronaldinho and Rivaldo made history wearing it), Messi instead made it impossible for anyone else to live up to the shirt in the future. From 2008-09 onwards for Barcelona, Messi has scored 370 goals and registered over 100 assists in 372 matches. It’s a mindboggling statistic, particularly due to the fact that Messi has that many assists whilst also being the primary scorer in the team.
These goals since 2008 have won his Barcelona side five La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys, three Champions League titles, and have personally earned him a record four consecutive Ballon d’Ors. Every year since this incredible record began, Messi has improved. Every goal, every assist, every play is bettered the next week, next month, or next season. His drive to improve is comparable only to that of Ronaldo. Messi’s relentless improvement has been no clearer to see than during this season. Messi’s goal against Bayern Munich in this year’s victorious Champions League campaign was hailed as possibly the best he has ever scored. The context certainly elevated the significance of the already impressive goal, as he dribbled past Jerome Boateng with humiliating ease to then dink a delicate finish over Neuer to give Barcelona a 2-0 away lead at Bayern Munich that effectively sealed their place in the Champions League semi-final. And it probably was his best ever goal, until his goal in the Copa del Rey Final three weeks later. This time the opposition were Athletic Bilbao, and this time he humiliated four players, not one.
But forget goals. Forget assists. Forget dribbles… Just the fact that someone has been able to make a 12-minute video of Messi successfully taking on 3 defenders or MORE shows that we are lucky to witness such a supremely talented technician every week. And even then, dribbling past players is only one of his many many strengths.
We will most likely never see anyone so naturally perfect at such an impossibly complex sport, and this view is shared by a large number of football’s greatest ever players. The scary thing is that, at 28, there is still a lot to come from Messi. Needless to say, his greatness will transcend time and eras in football. As Arsène Wenger simply put it, “Who is the best player in the world? Lionel Messi. Who is the best player ever? Lionel Messi.”