FFT100 2018: No.1, Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
First, an apology. We’re about to do the one thing Pep Guardiola hates most.
“Don’t try to write about him, don’t try to describe him,” Guardiola once said about his protege Lionel Messi. “Just watch him.”
We don’t mean to irritate Pep, but it’s precisely because we’ve done the latter, often at misty-eyed length, which compels us to do the former. Putting one word after another may be a curious way to describe the most naturally gifted footballer to have ever drawn breath, but the human psyche has always sought to make sense of genius. Attempting rational analysis of Picasso’s Guernica or listening to the Allegretto of Beethoven’s seventh symphony is no less reductive than summarising a diminutive Argentine’s latest 12 months of consistent brilliance.
To fully appreciate both you must visit Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum or see the Vienna Philharmonic in person. A poster or recording simply isn’t immersive enough. Messi now occupies that rarefied bracket, the columns which followed Barcelona’s 4-1 demolition of Spurs in October testament to the experience of watching the Flea subjugate a game of football.
Distance matters. Sure, we see the statistics – 50 goals in 52 appearances for club and country in 2018 – and take in the occasional Liga match on television, but seldom do we actually witness Messi on these shores. At Wembley, he scored twice, hit a post twice and delivered a pass in the build-up for Philippe Coutinho’s opener so imaginative it had its own cerebral cortex.
Such a display – one which featured an increasing array of defence-splitting passes as opposed to the bewitching dribbles which have defined the 31-year-old before his late-career evolution – is the rule, not the exception. In 2018/19 alone, the Barcelona forward has scored two or more goals per game seven times, registering once on just three occasions. In short, Messi doesn’t just score the odd goal: if he finds the net, he gets a taste for it.
Watching him in full flow remains one of football’s purest pleasures. “Like having an orgasm,” former Real Madrid and Barcelona winger Luis Figo once said. If Cristiano Ronaldo is a product of relentless training and conditioning to wring the maximum from an already-significant talent, Messi is the prima ballerina to whom everything comes so easily.
It has been another impeccably on-point year. The Argentine topped La Liga’s scoring charts last season, netting 34 times, and provided a further (joint-most) 12 assists. In March he scored his 600th senior career goal with a delicious free-kick against Atletico Madrid.
It isn’t just individual records which have tumbled, either. Barça’s 5-1 May defeat of Villarreal – a game in which he scored, obviously – extended Messi’s unbeaten Liga streak to a record 43 games, one he would later extend to 49. It’s no coincidence, either, that he was absent for Los Cules’ sole league defeat in 2017/18, a 5-4 defeat at Levante with the title already wrapped up.
So consistent has been Messi’s form, plans are afoot for La Liga’s player of the year award to be renamed in his honour. “I’d love to have a La Liga award in his name,” said league president Javier Tebas earlier this year, of the man who has won the honour on eight of the 10 occasions it has been awarded. “I don’t think anyone has contributed more to the competition. Messi will be the best in football history. He already is.”
When Andres Iniesta left the Camp Nou for Japan in the summer, Messi was the obvious choice to become Barcelona captain, as the club’s longest-serving first-team player. There were, however, reservations within the club. The No.10 is far from a natural orator, but has surprised many in the Barça hierarchy with the way he communicates with referees during games. The respect Messi has in the dressing room – a natural byproduct of being the most gifted footballer in history – means his team looks up to him and follows his rapidly maturing lead.
If there is a flaw, this is it – Messi is so good he can dominate a team’s style almost to the detriment of all others. Accustomed to his individual brilliance, Messi’s team-mates look to give him the ball and just hope. Most often seen last year at the World Cup for Argentina, Messi’s presence almost strikes fear within his own team, as if they don’t truly believe they are capable of winning unless the Flea produces a moment of magic.
He did just that by scoring a hat-trick in the decisive 3-1 qualifying win against Ecuador, but could only do it once in Russia with his glorious effort against Nigeria which helped put Argentina through to the last 16. But the Albiceleste’s star collapsed in on itself, drawing all matter towards it like a black hole of possession.
Even Barcelona have their moments on the ‘Messi and hope’ paradigm, most obviously when Blaugrana backs are up against a wall. Their 3-0 capitulation to Roma in the Champions League quarter-final – after winning the first leg 4-1 in Catalonia – was a case in point.
Such defeats act as inspiration. Winning a first European crown since 2015 is Messi’s biggest goal for next year. Liga titles are all well and good, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid winning the last three Champions Leagues, Messi somehow needs more continental prizes to take over decisively as the beautiful game’s greatest. That evolution, then, is vital.
Perhaps the best analogy comes from another sport. Between 2012 and 2016, the most talented player to have picked up a tennis racket didn’t win a grand slam. Roger Federer suffered from injuries, plus a loss of both form and desire. He’d won everything and the pretenders to his throne – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – circled.
Adapt or die – basic Darwinism. Tennis took more of a back seat: Federer had a family and picked the tournaments he would play. In 2017, the Swiss won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, retaining the former a year later.
Now 31, Messi must manage his workload, just like the Federer world tour. Ensure his freshness for big games, and a fourth Champions League will surely be the Argentine’s.
Watch him. Ignore Pep and write about him. Above all, enjoy him while you can because nothing lasts forever.