FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2015 No.1: Lionel Messi
It’s almost a decade ago now since the New York Times published a piece by David Foster Wallace about Roger Federer. In it, he sought to convey the experience of watching the Swiss wave his willow wand around the tennis court. What Foster Wallace came up with was the term Federer Moments. He defined them as times “when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”
Lionel Messi provokes the same reactions and stirs the same emotions. One of the moments of the year so far was in March when Pep Guardiola returned to the Camp Nou for the first time since he left in 2012. Barcelona were playing Manchester City and after half an hour or so Messi had him out of his seat.
Messi had just slipped the ball through poor old James Milner's legs and as he did Guardiola, up in the stands, puffed out his cheeks, put his head in his hands and turned in disbelief, a look of childlike wonder manifesting itself on his face. Here was a Messi moment. That ability to surprise and leave us aghast even after many years of following his career. It consolidated another feeling too.
Getting even better
After making his debut at 16 and playing around 600 games, there was a sense with Messi that burnout and decline was around the corner. Had we seen the best of him? Would we now have to come to terms with him slowing down and beginning to decline? Instead, quite improbably given the unprecedented standards he had set before, he was getting even better. Messi went to another level. Even after all the goals he has scored and all the trophies he has won, he looked like he still had a point to prove.
Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Neymar, Ozil
The previous season had ended in disappointment. Barcelona had finished as runners-up to Atletico Madrid in La Liga. They were knocked out of the Champions League by the same opponent and lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid. Then came the World Cup where Argentina reached the final and Messi was named the tournament’s best player - a decision that divided opinion. But their defeat to Germany at the Maracana left him unfulfilled and the claim that he is the greatest ever in some doubt.
In the days and weeks of introspection that followed, Messi did what true sporting legends do. He appears to have subjected himself to rigorous self-criticism and identified areas where he could improve.
After all the goals he has scored and all the trophies he has won, he came back hungrier, which is ironic, because one of the major changes he made was to go on a diet. There were trips to Sacile, a small town north of Venice, to consult Giuliano Posner, a specialist in these matters recommended to him by, of all people, Martin Demichelis. Messi lost 3kg and was able to play and train at a greater intensity. The effects were noticeable after the New Year.
The timing was poignant if coincidental, not least because it came when Cristiano Ronaldo received his third Ballon d’Or. The Portuguese’s entourage were still very much concerned about Messi. That much is clear from his recent documentary.
When Portugal were eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage, shots of Ronaldo in the shower, washing away his sorrow, are spliced with Messi reaching and then - what a relief! - losing the final against Germany. At the Clasico that October, an associate of Ronaldo's representitive, Jorge Mendes, sat beside him at the Bernabeu, turns and says: “The other guy could destroy everything.” Barça lost that game 3-1 and when tensions between Messi and coach Luis Enrique flared at the beginning of this year, it looked like they might implode. Instead they blew everyone else away and Messi ascended to a higher plane.
Before Bayern played Barça in the Champions League semi-finals, Guardiola admitted: "There is no defensive system that can stop him. Messi is unstoppable.” If versions of Messi exist, this one has to be the best ever. He scored twice in the 77th and 80th minutes and wasn’t done yet. He set up Neymar. The Messi moment here was the feint before his second goal. It was to Jerome Boateng what a tranquilizer dart is to an elephant, as Barcelona became the first ever team to do the Treble twice. Messi is the symbol of both. After moving to within one of his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo will once again find himself behind in the Ballon d’Or count by two. What was that line from his documentary again? “The other guy could destroy everything.” And in one moment too. A Messi moment. The 2015 collection has been pretty special and as a vintage it might well be considered the best yet and Messi’s best ever.