“It is clear that Messi is on a level above all others. Those who do not see that are blind” - Xavi Hernandez on Messi
As someone who has only ever been conscious of football from 1998 (born 1994) upwards it is hard for me to pick a hero from before my time, however it does leave me with a plethora of talent to choose from in the 21st century. In my lifetime players like Romario, Zidane and Ronaldo have all come and gone. They all left with a gasp and a respect as they sailed to the heights of the game; leaving behind them a legacy of which other players can pick up and run with. The game has changed since I have been watching it. From direct counter attacking play to the slow build up possession style that is en vogue in today's world; I have seen it all in my short existence.
Since I decided that football was where my life was heading; only one man has inspired me to follow it through more than any other. I have never met this man, almost certainly never will, but he has inspired me through his performances on the football pitch and his attitude off it.
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The term 'once in a generation' is used all too often in my opinion, as is 'legend'. What I have been able to watch over the past few years fits Lionel Messi firmly into those two prestigious categories. You could go as far as saying that he is not just a 'once in a generation' player, but instead 'once in a lifetime'.
Something people can't argue over though is fact. Messi consistently performs in whatever situation he is presented in. His raw talent flourishes in expanses such as the Nou Camp, where he is thrust upon to perform, but is also as effective if you watch him control a game in a thousand seater stadium - his versatility, due to his love for the game, has shielded him from the prospect that he is the best. He is critically acclaimed for his big match temperament and his enthusiasm for unstoppable displays, which in itself exacerbates the man's ethos.
Messi's determination to defy the odds makes him one of the greatest ever. As a child he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency disorder, something that would harm his prospective professional football career. Barcelona offered him the treatment once they foresaw his exceptional potential and proved their dedication through the now famous 'napkin contract'. This contract was to become one of the most important contractual agreements in footballing history. Not many clubs would have taken the risk from word of mouth about a child star, Messi was an exceptional exception.
It was clear to see that he had the talent from a young age and Graham Hunter rightly says 'It was obvious that Messi was becoming a star'. He would score countless goals within his age group and also in the years above considering his diminutive stature. The ability to move in and out of players provided him with a unique playing style which is rare at youth level. La Masia had shaped Messi into a player that worked hard, both for himself, and the team. The world reknowned academy provided the foundations to the global game that we know today; it runs and has succeeded just how Cruyff had intended it to.
The morphing of one of the greatest players to ever grace football's turf continued as he broke into a team full of superstars. Players like Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Deco surrounded him, creating an atmosphere of success at such a tender age. Messi shaped his game on Ronaldinho (who won Barcelona's golden boot in 2007) as a creative, goalscoring forward. Ronaldinho's aura paid dividends on Messi's development as he was successfully implemented into the first team and continued to impact the squad in his maiden season, scoring six times in seventeen league appearances. His inevitable media comparisons to Maradona began.
In his first full season (2006-2007) Messi scored his first hat-trick for the club against none other than Real Madrid. Netting 3 times in a single game isn't easy for any player; but at 19, on the biggest stage, Messi managed to step up to the occasion and fire in a trio of exceptional goals. By scoring this hat-trick, he became the first player since Ivan Zamorano (Real Madrid 1994–95) to score a hat-trick in El Clásico. With this, Messi is still the youngest ever player to have scored in this iconic fixture. The long haired magician had conjured up his magic to an audience of millions.
By 2008, Guardiola had recognised Messi was the breakthrough star that he was looking for. The greatest player of prior years was sold. Ronaldinho was deemed surplus to requirements. Upon his departure, Messi inherited the prestigous number ten jersey. He was to take the leading role on centre stage at Theatre Camp Nou. He obliged.
"Thank goodness for that, we can relax just a bit - because whoever they are bringing on [to replace Messi], they aren't as good as this guy. I don't care who they are - whoever is coming on, they are not as good as him." - Gordon Strachan when Messi was substituted, injured, against Celtic in 2008
Name me one player that has scored more than 91 goals in a calendar year in a top league. You could be thinking for a long time. There isn’t one. Messi, this year just gone, surrendered the sublime and continued his assent to godly status. In 365 days the little magician from Rosario enchanted the football world both for club and for country. Let’s slow down. Stop for one second. 91. Think about that. Inhumane.
With the talent that surrounds Messi it is clear to see why people do argue his ability. Xavi and Iniesta create the tempo in which Messi plays and excels, but Messi creates the space and provides the movement that make the midfield composers perform. It is a reciprocal agreement, and it works without fail. You may be surprised to find out that Messi was only assisted 16 times out of his 91 goals by the Spanish midfield pairing. However, if you add Dani Alves to the mix, as a forward thinking wing back, Messi is over subscribed with assistance in the goals he scores, but can't that be said for every goalscorer that has ever climbed to the heights of the game? Messi raises the bar for those around him as much as they do for him.
Watch him against anyone and he will do something. Even in the matches where people don’t think he does; he usually scores or assists. Take the match towards the end of the year against Atletico Madrid. Falcao has scored a delicious goal at the other end and Messi looks all but a straggler. He continues to link up with the midfield in his usual way, but he is being tightly marked. The out of nowhere, two goals. That epitomizes the greatness more than anything. From nothing to something spellbinding, in a matter of moments. There are too many examples of this; be it the solo run vs Real Madrid in 2011 or the header in the Champions League Final in 2009.
I am struggling to find words to describe the feats he achieved in 2012, so I’ll list some of the most impressive. He owns the record for the most goals in a La Liga season. He is the all time record scorer for Barcelona. He is closing the gap to be the record scorer in La Liga history and in Champions League history. He is the only player to score five goals in a Champions League match. He has the record for the most La Liga hat-tricks in one season. Most goals scored by a Barcelona player in the El Clasico tie. His record breaking deserves a whole new chapter in the Guiness Book of Records and the worrying thing is he is only 25. Forwards mature and peak at 27: god help us.
We must continue to be inspired by this special player and someone that defies logic and understanding. I’m not sure we have ever seen a player like him. I’m not sure if we ever will. All I can be sure of, though, is that people have to learn to enjoy him. We will miss him when he is gone.