Argentina’s Lionel Messi was passed over for 2013’s Ballon D’Or, the ‘Golden Ball’ award given to the best footballer in the world over the past 12 months, but one gets the feeling that the humble, self-effacing Messi is just as happy to pass the baton to another player for a change. This year Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo won the award but even Messi’s opponents, notably Atlético Madrid’s, Arda Turan, preemptively named Messi as the most deserving player.
Messi has received the honor four times, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, breaking a world record. He made the final shortlist in the 2007, 2008 and 2013 editions. Even in years when Argentina crashed out, such as in the Quarter Finals of the 2010 World Cup, ‘The Flea,’ as Messi is affectionately known, was just so good that he managed to buck the trend of awarding a player from a winning team.
In 2011 he won the inaugural UEFA Best Player in Europe Award and was a nominee in 2012 and 2013. Everything points to this run of success continuing, and it won’t be a surprise if Messi wins half a dozen more awards before his career is out.
Football fans, regardless of club or national affiliation, are often stunned by the things Messi is able to do with the ball at his feet. When watching him embark on one of his jinking, wriggling attacking forays, reactions can range from open-mouthed silence to incredulous laughter. Perhaps the most amazing thing about him, though, is the early trajectory of his career and the records he has broken along the way. By 24 he was Barcelona’s all time highest scorer; by 25 he was the first player to top 200 goals in La Liga, the Spanish Football League; and by the age of 26 he secured 300 goals for Barcelona.
The peak years for a footballer are generally considered to be between the ages of 28 and 30. If this pint-sized maestro can continue on his current course, by the time he retires he will is likely to be regarded as the greatest footballer the game has ever seen, surpassing mythical players like countryman Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pelé. There are those who already consider him to be part of the pantheon:
“Messi is out of this planet, I would say he is so far ahead of the rest of the players playing right now and I would say historically as well. There are not words to describe him,” said 1978 World Cup player, Ossie Ardiles on BBC Radio 5 live.
A look at his list of achievements at such a young age helps to explain the sense of awe that surrounds him. Aside from a list of individual honors about as long as Messi is short, he has won titles with the Argentina national team at junior level and, most notably with his club side Barcelona. Apart from representing Argentina at two senior World Cups, Messi has also won an Under-20 World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in national team colors. With Barcelona he has already notched up four league titles, two European Champions League titles, one Spanish cup and the FIFA World Club Cup, as well as many more minor cup titles.
“His speed is astonishing, ” said Argentina teammate, Carlos Tevez. “It’s amazing how he can go 1 to 100 in just one second. I’m constantly around great players like Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Wayne] Rooney, But this guy is just a step up above every other great footballer out there at the moment, Not only is he quick, determined, and extremely intelligent on the ball, but his movement off the ball is just as fantastic – ‘unbelievable’ to sum it up in a word.”
Little Leo Messi
Messi’s career could have been over before it even began because his small stature once meant that no big clubs in Argentina were willing to sign him up. These days, Messi’s diminutive stature is often seen as an advantage on the field. His low center of gravity is pinpointed as one of the reasons he is able to stop on a dime and change direction instantly, sending less agile defenders reeling clumsily past like novice ice skaters.
Lionel Messi was born in Rosario, Santa Fe on 24 June, 1987 to a lower-middle class family. At the age of eight, he was recruited into Rosario club Newell’s Old Boy’s youth teams, where his considerable skills drew the attention of several big clubs. The tiny attacking midfielder suffered from a growth hormone deficiency though and Argentine teams like River Plate could not afford to pay for his treatment. Fortunately, Barcelona scouts had also spotted the talented youngster, and offered the 13-year-old Lio a trial in Spain. Barcelona’s coaching staff were impressed with what they saw, and the club offered to pay the medical bills for Messi’s family if they were willing to uproot to Catalonia. They accepted the deal and Barcelona have enjoyed the player’s loyalty ever since.
Messi debuted in the Barcelona first team in 2003 at the remarkable age of 16-and-a-half in a friendly match, making him the youngest ever Barcelona player at the time. His competitive debut came less than a year later when he established himself as a club superstar by scoring three goals against arch rivals Real Madrid in the 2006-07 season. Since putting early-career injury worries behind him, Messi has soared to success. His Barcelona team is regarded by many as the greatest team in history, and Messi is the jewel in the crown. The year 2010, at club level at least, was statistically his best yet. He scored an astonishing 42 goals, made 15 assists and completed 166 dribbles in the Spanish league, putting him at the top of the pile in all categories.
“He made the impossible possible. He has something exceptional. He is unstoppable. He is the best player in the world by some distance. He’s (like) a PlayStation player,” said Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger after Messi scored four goals against his team.
Messi and Argentina
Internationally, accolades for Messi have been flooding in for years but strangely, despite his talent, good-looks and affable manner, the Argentine public has taken longer to warm to him. A common gripe amongst media commentators and Argentina fans was that Messi never performed as well for the national team as he did for his club side. The theory went that he moved overseas at such a young age that he felt more Catalan than Argentine and therefore gave more to Barcelona.
Messi was often compared unfavorably to the man many in Argentina regard as a demigod, Diego Maradona. Messi, shy and retiring off the field, was said to lack the spark and leadership qualities of ‘El Diego.’ This attitude may have a lot to do with the fact that Messi never played senior football in Argentina. Most Argentine players who go on to play for big teams in Europe earn themselves a rabid fan base back home by spending a year or two with Boca, River or one of the other big teams in local football. Less talented players like Martin Palermo or Ariel Ortega, who failed to make an impression in Europe’s powerful leagues are in some ways higher profile in Argentina than Messi because they have spent years playing in the national league, and are therefore highly visible to local audiences.
It would be easy to understand why Messi would feel more loyalty to Barcelona, as local teams such as River Plate passed over the opportunity to sponsor him when he was just a promising youngster who needed expensive medical treatment. But through the years Messi has gradually won over Argentine fans as well, simply because he keeps performing at a phenomenal level.
Comments from Maradona himself anointing Messi as his successor have helped to convince the general populace. Although he was unable to score for Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, he was instrumental in almost all of the team’s goals, and was named by FIFA as one of the 10 best players of the tournament. Since then, he has scored a delightful goal against world champions Spain and, most importantly, led the win in 2010 and 2012 ‘friendly’ international matches against hated rivals Brazil.
Since most Argentines under 30 years of age won’t remember first-hand Diego Maradona’s heroics at the 1986 World Cup, and are perhaps even tiring of hearing older generations eulogize the man, Messi is becoming more and more of a next generation idol.
The only thing missing from his trophy cabinet is a World Cup. At 26, he probably has at least two tournaments left in him before he retires.
Whether he manages to pull off that feat remains to be seen. Even if he doesn’t, it’s likely that a lot of grandchildren in 50 years time will get bored to tears listening to stories of Lionel Messi, he who mesmerized the masses. Even the man who is most in love with the cult of Maradona, Diego Maradona himself, crowned Messi as his successor in 2010 :
“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.”
—by Dan Colasimone