So the man currently carrying the tag of the world’s greatest player ended his season without a pot to cook in, but even if that is the case, when we look back at the most enthralling moments of 2011/12, the figure of Lionel Messi will be one of those most heavily involved, even if his final act will be striking the Chelsea crossbar with his penalty kick, a shot that allowed Chelsea into the Champions League final and gave Fernando Torres, once a contender for the “world’s greatest” crown the chance to star rehabilitating his shattered reputation.
By Dave Bowler
For a footballer whose very future in the game was threatened as a youngster because of the slightness of his stature, he has grown to become the biggest figure in the game, his balletic movement and prehensile control of the football giving emphatic lie to the game’s obsessive assertion that it is now simply a game for giants and lung busting athletes. Messi has made it perfectly clear that there is still room at the very top for the true artist.
His ability to score goals is simply remarkable, even when you accept that at Barcelona, he is part of a team that can swat aside pretty well all comers at will, a situation that his contemporary, Cristiano Ronaldo, can also enjoy at Real Madrid. But where Ronaldo has the element of the heavyweight about him, powering opponents into submission, Messi is the magician, swerving, slipping, sliding, the magician that produces incredible sleights of foot that leave defenders and goalkeepers bewildered.
The great arguments that rage against Messi being elevated to the status of the greatest of all time are obvious ones. Unlike Pele, Cruyff and many others that came before him, he operates in a game where tackling is no longer such a weapon in the defender’s armoury, where a player can run forwards safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to hack him down from behind.
Even those in front of him are restricted in just what they can do to take the ball off him given the way in which red and yellow cards are dished out in the modern game. A player like Messi is a far more protected species than in the past, and the game’s administrators deserve some credit for that, because surely we’d all rather see him in full flight than being the victim of an assassin as George Best and others of his ilk so often were.
The quality of modern pitches, the lightness of present day equipment, the willingness of the football to move in the air these days are all things that some point to as making Messi’s life easier, and it’s probably true, but then all modern day players enjoy the same advantages and none of them are Messi are they?
Probably the biggest charge laid against him is his inability to lead Argentina to greater glories in the way that Diego Maradona did. For all that the Champions League is so dominant today, it is still the World Cup that is the ultimate pinnacle, still on that stage that Messi will achieve that final step if he wants to be seen as the finest player the world has ever seen. And where and when better to do so than 2014 in Brazil?’ **
More to come
Between now and then, he will of course have to weather the imminent changes at Barcelona where Pep Guardiola is about to step down. Whether Barcelona will look to unpick the style that has so beguiled the world and which has delivered so many trophies remains to be seen, but Messi has clearly enjoyed a very close personal relationship with the outgoing coach, so will he be as able to thrive under new management?
The answer must surely be yes because his vision, his control, that sudden burst of acceleration with the ball at his beck and call, the accuracy of his passing and the devastating blast of his finishing would make him the centrepiece of any team, and must certainly make him the player that Manchester City covet above all others.
Messi is likely to be the finest player in the world for some seasons to come and we’d be wise simply to enjoy that rather than compare him with the past or wonder what else he could have achieved. If there’s one lesson from history, it’s that even the greatest players flare brilliantly for a limited period before the passing of time takes the edge off their genius. Cherish him while you can.