In 51 days time, the world of football could have it’s new king. For there is no doubt that Lionel Messi is the best player in the world (a theory I should fundamentally disagree with, as he is clearly not from this planet), there still remains an argument in some corners of the game that Messi should not be included in the upper echelon of football greats. Back to back Champions League winners’ medals are a mouth watering prospect to any footballer, but to the stand-out star of one of the modern football’s greatest teams the world has seen, it would serve as nothing more than a footnote to his undoubted talent, and a catapult to the title of greatest of all time.
This is high praise for a player who is only 22 years old. But let’s not forget that at this tender age, he already has the talent and credentials to be the envy of any other player out there, for that is what greatness is measured in – talent and credentials. There are some who will refuse to believe Messi’s greatness until he gets his hands on a World Cup winner’s medal, but the truth is, this has never been the true test of a player. George Best had no trouble convincing the world he was one of the finest players ever seen to this day, and he has never even kicked a ball in a World Cup finals tournament.
The rise to prominence of the kid-who-would-be-king is well documented at this stage. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1987, Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone disorder as a child. His father – a factory worker – and mother – a part time cleaner – were unable to afford treatment for their son, so they began visiting local football clubs such as River Plate to see if there was anything that could be done for Leo, who had been playing football since the age of 5. When European giants Barcelona were made aware of his talents, Messi and his father flew to Spain – and the rest, they say, is history. Barcelona paid all of Messi’s medical expenses, housed his family and gave his father a job at the club.
Flirting with the Barcelona first team for the entire 2004/2005 season, Messi made his Barcelona debut in October 2004 at the age of 17, becoming the youngest player to ever represent the club in a league game at the time. To this record, he also added the accolade of youngest ever league goalscorer when he notched his first goal for the club against Albacete in May of that same season. Coincidentally, Messi would go on to assist team mate Bojan Krkic in breaking this record, setting up a goal for the young Spaniard two years later.
With his reputation growing domestically, it was on the 22nd February 2006 that the world stood up and took notice. A Champions League knockout stage match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was the stage upon which Messi would weave his magic. He tormented the Blues throughout a pulsating 90 minutes – something we have come to be accustomed with when these two teams meet – stealing the limelight from the abundance of stars on show, including Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
While this performance alone did not cement Messi’s position as one of the greatest in the world, it certainly brought to the attention of the world his potential to someday be considered. In many eyes, this potential was fulfilled in March 2007 when Messi helped himself to a hat-trick against Real Madrid in El Clásico – arguably the biggest rivalry in club football.
When every young player leaves Argentina for a big European club, they will rarely escape without being labelled “the next Maradona”. Such expectations can cripple a teenager, but not Messi. Mention the name Maradona around these parts, and two things spring to mind – his undoubted class, and that game against England where he scored both arguably the greatest goal of all time, and the most controversial goal of all time. Quite a lot to live up to, but not for Messi. Not only did he have the skill to replicate Maradona’s masterful goal (see below), but he also had the audacity to recreate the infamous “hand of God” (again, see below).
For all ex-Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard’s work with Messi (which should not go unnoticed), it was at the dawn of the 2008/2009 season and the hiring of Pep Guardiola that signalled a new era for Messi. Guardiola’s tactical fluidity – a throwback to the Brazil team of 1970 and Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax side of the 1990’s (which it seems is being taught amongst the Barcelona youth setup) – has indeed brought the best out of Messi. 114 goals and 48 assists in 202 appearances is a truly fantastic achievement. But under Guardiola’s management, Messi has couped 72 goals and 29 assists…in 92 appearances! It is a simply phenomenal record, further escalated by the fact they have helped his team to 6 trophies in that time, with the strong possibility of another 2 come that 51 days time.
You can have no doubt about it, Barcelona are a truly remarkable team right now, and what I am about to say is meant with the utmost respect. The club’s motto, més que un club (more than a club) is highly appropriate right now, for with all the respect we must pay the clubs history, right now they are indeed more than a club. They are Lionel Messi. There is no greater compliment than what Real Zaragoza coach José Aurelio Gay had to say after Messi single handedly dismantled his team two weeks ago with a stunning hat-trick. I think it perfectly sums up my “more than a club” theory about Barcelona and Messi.
“Tonight, I saw Diego Maradona, but at more revs per minute. There are no words left to describe him – he is interplanetary. We could have beaten Barcelona tonight, but we could never have beaten Leo Messi.”