I don’t usually write laudatory pieces- and with good reason. It’s hard to keep people riveted when you write one-dimensionally about anything. Not to mention the bitter-sweet truth that most people would rather read criticism than praise, malice than appreciation, skepticism than total acceptance of fact. And laudatory pieces are most often exactly that- brimming over with effusive praise, glazed with uninhibited adulation and, by definition, almost parochial in stance. That is an immediate turn-off for me as a writer. Writing is all about perspective they say (yet to understand who “they” are, but evidently “they” say) and perspective is never that black or white- it’s important to meander and harness the grey.
But today I’m putting all that to bed- temporarily. I’ve seen something last week (nay, we all have!) that compels me to write something “brimming over with effusive praise”. I’ve seen the best football player of my generation do something totally unfathomable. He has scored 88 goals (as I write this article that’s the number) in 2012 thus far, with 2 games to go to still better that tally, breaking the record for most goals scored by a player in a calendar year that stood for nearly 40 years. He has scored 56 goals in 36 La Liga games, 13 goals in 12 Champions League games and 12 goals in 9 Argentina Internationals in 2012. And one can’t even peg him as simply being an out-and-out goal-scorer. Not when he has 5 assists already in La Liga and a total of 32 assists in 2012 in all competitions!
Yet Lionel Messi’s greatness far exceeds his achievements. Leo will never say he is the best in the world or the best of all time. He will never brandish anyone as being less important or declare him as being more important to his football teams. He will always say he’s just doing his job. He’s playing his part to help his team win, to help his team-mates succeed and that he just happens to be somehow chalking up ridiculous statistics that make the rest of the world gawk in astonishment.
Gerd Muller actually had a better goals-to-games ratio than Lionel Messi when he scored his then record-breaking 85 goals in 1972. Gerd notched up 85 goals in 60 games, while Leo has 88 in 67 thus far (didn’t mention Copa Del Rey and Spanish Super Cup statistics earlier). But Gerd Muller himself was recently quoted as saying, “I’m delighted that the best player in the world has broken my record, which stood for 40 years. He’s an incredible player, gigantic”. The thing that makes Messi special is not his goal-scoring. It’s the all-round game he brings to his teams- his work ethic, his attitude and most importantly his unrelenting pursuit and hunger for excellence. You will never hear Messi complaining about the hectic match schedule or the fact that he has no time to do anything else. He does not want to do anything else. Copa Del Rey 3rd round or Champions League Final- he wants to play. And that is a rarity. We’re talking about a player who is not just excellent in spurts- he has been excellent for the last 5 years consistently! He has not missed a single La Liga game in 2 years. Unfathomable!
The criticism one often hears about Messi (usually from disgruntled Cristiano fans) is that he is over-reliant on his excellent mid-field partners in crime- Xavi and Iniesta. The truth is Cristiano wouldn’t have scored nearly as many as he did for Man United if not for Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Carlos Tevez. And he wouldn’t be scoring as many as he is now without Ozil, Di Maria and Benzema. And that’s not to say he’s not a great player! However, pointing out that a great player is aided by great team-mates is an exercise in futility. A great player will always have great team-mates because a great player will always play for great teams- see the futility of it all now? Would Messi have scored 88 goals if he was playing alongside Jason Puncheon or Grant Holt? I’d wager not. But that does not mean he is not the best in the world. One need only glance at his record with Argentina and at the statistics from all games in 2012 when he has played without Xavi and/or Iniesta. 37 games without either Xavi or Iniesta (5 of those without both) in all competitions and he scored 48 goals. I rest my case.
Another point Pele (among others) always seems rather eager to bring up is the fact that Messi can never be considered the all-time greatest unless he wins a World Cup. My apologies to Pele fans, but this is balmy talk. Messi is only 25 and he has already won everything possible at Club Level- multiple times. He has been the top scorer in the Champions League from 2008-09 to 2011-12. He has been the top scorer in La Liga 4 times in the last 6 years. And he has even recently crossed Maradona’s goal-tally for his national team. He still has a long time to play and win trophies and could certainly still win a World Cup. Even if he doesn’t though, he is still the best. Statistics constitute the temple of truth in any sport- and his (though he may himself choose to be ignorant of them) say Leo Messi is the greatest of all time.
With that I come to the end of this rather exalting disquisition on Lionel Messi. I tried very hard to look for criticism to balance my piece, but the truth is with Messi there isn’t much. We can all only feel privileged and take in with humility every opportunity we get to watch him and his magnificent Barcelona compatriots take to the field and decimate the opposition. For my part, I shall be hoping there is no repeat of the Champions League Finals of 2009 and 2011. I shall be hoping someone knocks Barcelona out by then. Oh dear, Chelsea is in the Europa League. Woe betide!