As I start writing this sentence, Lionel Messi has just brought his goal tally for 2012 to 90 but by the time I’ve finished it, there’s every chance he’ll have increased it by another one or, more likely, two.
It’s not only befuddled defenders who are left trailing by the greatest player in the world; hacks and statisticians have a job keeping up too.
It’s become a commonplace now for people to hold their hands up and admit defeat in their efforts to find words to do justice to the genius of the little Argentinian, those routine superlatives as exhausted as every opponent who has ever been tasked with the mission impossible of keeping tabs on a footballing will o’ the wisp.
But perhaps the highest and certainly the most original compliment I’ve heard paid to Messi came in a strangely backhanded way during the course of a conversation I had recently with a renowned Irish sportsman.
This man said he’d been a big football fan all through his youth but confessed that he had lately grown thoroughly disillusioned with a game in which so much effort, he felt, was being invested in the dark arts.
Diving, feigning injury, looking to get opponents booked or sent off — this stuff was so ubiquitous in football now, he complained, that he could barely bring himself to watch a full 90 minutes of action any more, even when it involved his once beloved Liverpool. (And, to be fair, I suppose we can all sympathise a bit with him on that score).
In short, football was a dying game, he declared, not without regret, before adding, almost with a sigh: “I don’t think even Messi can save it now.”
Which only goes to show that even in the eyes of the unbelievers, it’s a short enough step from Messi to Messiah.
As it happens, I don’t share the apocalyptic view that football is in a state of terminal decline. Certainly, there’s much which disfigures the beautiful game in the modern age and, agreed, one of the more exasperating sights is that of grown men tripping over thin air, but even the briefest highlights reel of the 12 months just ending should be enough to confirm why football retains its hold on the world’s affections: just think of the ineffable drama of Manchester City’s last gasp Premier League title, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s outrageous overhead kick or the scintillating collective brilliance of Euro winners Spain, for starters.
And running like the richest of gold threads through the tapestry of 2012 has been Lionel Messi’s astonishing goal rush. Football is an intensely tribal business and it takes something truly unique to unite all the disparate factions in one shared hope but that’s exactly what happened on the night of Wednesday December 5 when Messi, just one short of Gerd Muller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year, collapsed to the turf in the Nou Camp in a Champions League game against Benfica. Typically, he had tried to stay on his feet and score after a heavy impact with the goalkeeper, letting go an understandably weak shot even as he fell to the ground feeling an alarming discomfort in his knee.
As he was being stretchered off the pitch, his concern was shared not only by the 50,000 Barca supporters present but by innumerable football fans right around the globe. Anyone with any kind of feeling for the game, indeed for sport in general, wanted Messi to break the record. Natural justice demanded nothing less. That he could be denied by injury seemed the cruellest kind of blow.
Happily, all fears were allayed as the injury was diagnosed as nothing more than heavy bruising and he was soon back in the Barcelona starting line-up for the game against Real Betis in Seville, where it took him just 25 minutes to first equal and then break Muller’s 40-year-old record.
That he had bounced back in double-quick to time to claim another quick double was a reminder that, for all his supernatural ability — and, with it, the sense that it must come so easily to him — Messi’s has also been a story of triumph over adversity, right from when he was a tiny nine-year-old in Rosario who had to overcome the universal fear of the needle and learn to give himself injections to combat a growth hormone deficiency.
Maybe that’s one of the reason he has never seemed to take his talent for granted. Certainly, it’s one of the most impressive character traits of Messi, the man and the footballer, that his innate skill and the evident joy in his play, are always underpinned by an appetite for hard work, a raging will to win and an acute grasp of what, for even this most gifted of individuals, it means to be a team player.
Some team, of course, but some player too. A great scorer of goals and a scorer of great goals. A footballer who combines the application of Roy Keane with the wizardry of George Best. Currently the best player in the world, without any doubt, and, at just 25, well on his way to becoming, perhaps, the greatest there’s ever been.
It’s Lionel Messi’s church: we’re just lucky to worship in it.
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