So when can we say he’s the best player of all time?
How about now?
There was a moment in April 2007, amid the ongoing debate over how close Messi was to the playing level of Maradona, when something brilliant happened. In a Copa del Rey game against Getafe, the famously non-communicative Messi scored a goal for Barcelona that was eerily, and spectacularly, similar to Maradona’s second against England in the 1986 World Cup. It was as if the pretender was saying: “Oh, that goal? The best one he ever scored? Yes, I can score one like that if you want.”
Messi would go on to be brilliant in a way that we haven’t seen before; a new style of player, and he seems to be getting better every year. He’s not just the best footballer of this era, but one who defines it and — along with his team — has influenced the direction the game is now taking.
The stats, as you probably know, are staggering. Last season he scored seventy-three goals in sixty club games for Barcelona, including fifty in just thirty-seven La Liga matches for Barca. He also scored ninety-one goals in the 2012 calendar year, surpassing Gerd Müller’s record for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972. These are goals-to-game ratios that we thought were condemned only to exist way in the past. Or easy levels of video games. Or the Dutch league.
Even if you discount all of the La Liga goals scored by his teammates in every game throughout that season, Barca would still have secured second place thanks to Messi’s strikes alone. The idea that La Liga is an easy league (if you’re at Real Madrid or Barca) may hold some truth, but note that Messi has been the top scorer for the last four seasons in the Champions League too.
FOR YEARS THERE SEEMED TO BE A STRING OF PLAYERS (creative, usually left-footed) who would emerge in Argentina and rapidly be labelled as “The New Maradona”. Juan Riquelme, Andrés D’Alessandro, Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar (who Messi has said is his favourite player to watch) and so on have all played to varying degrees of success with the yoke of the “New Maradona” title weighing them down. But by the time Messi was being mentioned in those terms, he was already measuring up to the master, rather than just being touted on the basis of future potential.
These other “New Maradonas” played as a traditional number ten, just as Maradona himself did. For South Americans, the number ten position is more than just a figure on the shirt; it’s an indicator that you are playing the role that is expected to work magic. It’s the enganche (hook) role that links the midfield and forwards, as well as denoting the one who is expected to do exceptional things regularly — almost a contradiction in terms.
In short, it is the epitome of the star player. But Messi doesn’t play there. And the fact that he doesn’t operate as that traditional “star player” makes him even more special.
How he does so is a seemingly perfect mix of nature and nurture. Messi’s brilliance didn’t develop via the usual South American route. He came to Europe aged thirteen, so never spent time growing up in the Argentine system that prizes — and pressures — the number ten and all that it encompasses. Instead, he grew up playing in the academy at Barcelona — La Masia. The former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola once said of their training school, “The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest. It’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child.”
Moving out of Argentina was the making of Messi; it protected him from the corruption and dealing of agents in South America, and put him in the best finishing school in world football. In Spain, it’s said that Guardiola kept him away from the likes of Ronaldinho and the rest of the party crowd who were at Barca during his formative years. Pep Guardiola can therefore take credit for a lot of what Messi has achieved. Not just because of his personal mentoring, but also for the Barcelona side, and more specifically his style of play, that created the perfect set of circumstances in which a player like Messi could excel.
Bear in mind also that he’s proven his brilliance in several positions within this system. This is another factor in the case for Messi’s greatness. Sometimes he operates as a poacher in the box; at other times more like a traditional number ten, but dropping almost into a midfielder, while often he is deployed in the false nine position or even out on the wing or as an inverted winger.
As a result, he’s not only a wildly prolific goalscorer, but also sets up goals for others. In fact, according to statisticians Opta (optasports.com/@OptaJoe), since 2007 he has set up seventy- four La Liga goals. No player in any of the top five leagues (Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France) can better that figure. To be a top goalscorer and supreme creator is almost unheard of. As Opta points out, he was involved in (by either taking or setting up) forty-seven percent of Barca’s shots in recent seasons.
Not only has he performed to previously unseen levels wherever he has played, he has also epitomised the shift in the way football is played. History may deem that the Spanish national side, under Vicente Del Bosque, was the successful perpetrator of the striker-less formation on the international stage, but it was Barcelona that were doing it every week, and the logical adoption by the national team came from this template. Over the decades, football has shifted from a dribbling game to a speed-and-strength game, to the present-day style based on possession. Messi’s Barcelona is the team that defines this era and he is the player that defines that team.
Famously shy and hugely reluctant to talk to strangers, Messi usually cuts a solitary figure off the pitch. In a game full of self-promotion, he just plays and lets others judge his worth. And having won the last four World Player of the Year titles, the judgement of his profession is clear.
But even those acolades arguably don’t do him justice. When The Guardian asked Moneyball architect Billy Beane who the most underrated footballer was, he replied: “I’d actually say Lionel Messi. He’s so remarkable and watching him play, he’s probably still undervalued. When you’re scoring five goals in one Champions League match, there’s no value that’s too high.”
SO WHY THE RELUCTANCE to crown Lionel Messi the outright greatest? Some say only with hindsight will we appreciate what we are seeing now. In football, although the hype is as great as in anything else, it often takes a decade or two before fans can place players and teams into context. Perhaps it’s also because the game has changed so much since Pelé’s heyday in the Fifties and Sixties, and is increasingly barely-recognisable from Maradona’s Eighties, that it’s hard to compare. We only recognise true quality and those who create it once the era has passed.
The other reason is one of the heart, rather than the head. When Esquire spoke recently to some Argentine football fans in a Buenos Aires bar about whether Messi was better than Maradona, the younger fans all said that he was superior, but admitted that they don’t remember much of Maradona playing. Those who lived though Maradona’s time, to a man, agreed that Messi is now the better footballer. But they also said he will never be as loved, revered or mythologised. The feeling is not just the oft-repeated he-hasn’t-won-anything-for-Argentina mantra; it goes deeper than that. The problem is that fans struggle to see him as one of them. This matters in South America.
But don’t just take the opinion of some fans in a bar. During the warm-up for an international game against Colombia last year, the stadium announcer declared: Con la diez, el mejor del mundo, Lionel Messi. Y con la once, el jugador del pueblo, Carlos Tévez. It translates: “With the number ten, Messi is the best in the world, and with the eleven, Tévez is the player of the people.”
The trouble is not just that Messi left for Spain as a boy. The reason he is not truly loved at home is because the real heroes of Argentina have come from the streets. Maradona grew up in the Villa Fiorito slum, while Messi is from a middle-class family that lived more than three hours away from the capital.
And while he may not have won anything with Argentina, it’s a myth that he doesn’t perform for his country. In his last sixteen games for his country, he’s scored eleven and set up eleven. In 2012 he equalled Gabriel Batistuta’s record of most goals scored in a year (twelve) by a player for Argentina.
Maradona once said that if Messi led Argentina to victory in the 2010 World Cup then “the Maradona and Pelé polemics will end.” They faltered in South Africa, but 2014 looks more than promising. Just like at Barca, he’ll have a fine supporting cast. The attacking options alone are stunning, with Tévez, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ángel di María and Ezequiel Lavezzi all likely to be in the squad.
THERE’S A BACK-STORY THAT GOES: when Messi was nine-year’s-old he was diagnosed with a hormone condition that restricted his growth. He had to have daily injections, and it was feared that this could mean the end of an already promising football career. He asked his doctor if he would ever grow, to which Dr. Diego Schwarsztein, recalling the incident years later, said he replied: “You will be taller than Maradona, I don’t know if you will be better, but you will be taller.” He is taller now, by a few inches. All that remains is the haggling over the point when we can declare him the best.
The Argentines are already talking about it being the World Cup in Brazil. To win it not just in South America, but in their neighbour’s (and hated rival’s) backyard would be seen as the ultimate victory. After a stellar tournament there, and perhaps only then, will Lionel Messi be indisputably viewed in his homeland as surpassing Maradona and Pelé to become the greatest player of all time.
Elsewhere though, perhaps that point is now?
For Esquire Magazine, March 2013