He makes it look so easy, there is a danger we will start to take his genius for granted.
So it’s a good thing that Lionel Messi has given us such an emphatic landmark, a huge punctuation point for his wonderful career.
Good luck to anyone trying to break his new record 86 goals in a calendar year – and there’s still time for a few more in 2012.
So just how much merit is there in this achievement? It may take years to be properly appreciated.
Inevitably the comparison with Gerd Muller’s 1972 record has to be made. Muller may have the better strike rate (85 in 60 games compared to Messi’s 86 in 66) but he did score 12 goals in five games in a minor German cup competition. I mention this not to take anything away from the great German – how unfair to take anything away from someone scoring 12 goals in five games 40 years ago!
But it’s to try and stop Messi’s strike rate being compared unfavourably. Eighty-six goals in a year in modern football is phenomenal. An outrageous strike rate – Champions league, Primera Division and 12 for Argentina included. Some top quality opposition along the way.
We’ll never know how successful this wonderful Barcelona team, one of the greatest in history, would be without Messi. It’s another argument that can’t be proved either way, and includes the doubt about how great Pep Guardiola is as manager too. But if any game captures the importance of the little wizard, the record-breaking game against Betis is it.
If you didn’t see it in full, you may be surprised to hear that Betis were the best team on the night. Barca were outplayed for much of it and the post and crossbar came to their rescue as Betis attacked in waves in the second half. Thanks to Messi, Barca won 2-1 and took three more points.
Twice in the first 25 minutes Messi had a chance to score, and both times he showed the clinical perfection that has brought such rewards for him and his team. Both times as he pulled the trigger you knew he would score. Not many players stay in that category for years. And those that do – players like Muller and Ian Rush – don’t usually dominate games and run through entire teams dribbling too.
Already Barcelona’s highest scorer in history and surely about to win the Ballon d’Or (best world player) for the fourth successive time, former Barcelona and Holland legend Johan Cruyff predicts Messi will win the award ‘five, six or seven times’, the most in history. He’s incomparable.
But such compliments won’t stop the ‘incomparable’ being, well, compared! Best player ever?
Debates of this kind can often prove futile. Some people even find them offensive. There’s an unforgettable television documentary clip of the great Brazilian captain Socrates, who died this year, being asked to compare Pele and Maradona, and decide who’s best. With weary cynicism, he hilariously rips apart the egotism behind these two great players, ultimately making the point that their squabbles are childish and that football is a team game. He does it with such infectious charm and eloquence you feel guilty for daring to compare.
No matter how many times I try, I can’t really conclude who is the better player of Pele and Maradona – both achieved so much, truly fulfilling their talent. Now we have Messi, and with apologies to Socrates and though his work is far from done, there’s nothing wrong with wondering his greatness while he is still playing.
My feeling is that 86 goals in 2012 is so jaw-droppingly brilliant that even he won’t match this in later years. But that the defining tournament for Messi is yet to arrive.
He is only 25 – but he hasn’t enjoyed the big success for Argentina yet. Club-wise he’s been there, seen it, done it and won it but he hasn’t quite had the touch of luck needed on the biggest international stage.
In last year’s Copa America he was outshone by Luis Suarez and Uruguay. And in the last World Cup in South Africa the magic dried up. I don’t think he played badly – I don’t think he is capable of playing badly. But the goals and the wins were somehow not there.
So will his time be 2014, in neighbouring Brazil? Will that be Messi’s World Cup in the way ‘86 in Mexico was Maradona’s tournament?
It could be set up perfectly for him – he will turn 27 during the tournament, will possibly at his peak, and hungry for that international success to accompany the Barcelona gold.
Remember he is made of strong stuff – quickly recovering from the injury against Benfica that briefly threatened to jeopardise his record bid. And he is unselfish – we believe him when he says the record isn’t as important to him as the team winning. So the reason he hasn’t been properly rested was not to help him break the record, it’s mainly because his energy levels don’t dip. Gliding through matches with that low centre of gravity.
Yes, in conclusion we should probably wait another decade or so before deciding what contribution Lionel Andres Messi has made to football history.
Just as long as we appreciate what he’s already achieved, and that he’s here entertaining us twice a week.
No matter how effortless he makes it look.