Lionel Messi is no ordinary soccer player. Five times winner of football’s highest individual honour, the Ballon d’Or, the list of awards and prizes he has won as a player is seemingly endless, including the European Golder Shoe (awarded to the top goal scorer in Europe) on six occasions, and Argentine player of the year no fewer than eleven times.
Some argue the title of greatest player should go to his arch-rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, now plying his trade with Juventus, and indeed the two men have seemed to sour the other on, in a seemingly endless race to see who can top the other. Recently, Ronaldo scored his 600th goal in domestic football, and, within a week, Messi had matched the achievement. However, Messi edges the two when it comes to sheer talent, and the ability to score goals of every type and variety. And, arguably, Messi is more prepared to put his skills at the services of the collective and the team; with Ronaldo, there is always a sense that it is still about him.
Early Life and Career
Messi’s talent was evident from an early age. He joined the youth academy at Newell’s Old Boys when he was just six, and, in the following six years with them, scored nearly 500 goals.
His football career almost did not happen at all. When he was ten, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, and his family could not affect the cost of treatment. Newell’s offered to him cover the price but then reneged on the arrangement, causing his family to seek other alternatives. Exploiting family connections in Catalonia, they arranged for Messi to have a trial with Barcelona. So impressed was the Spanish side that Charly Rexach, the club’s sporting director, drew up a contract with Messi on the spot, writing it on a paper napkin. Barcelona funded the medical treatment the teenager required.
Initially stricken with homesickness, Messi was so quiet that his young teammates initially believed he was mute. However, once he had settled, he became part of the club’s most successful youth team ever and ascended rapidly through the ranks at the Nou Camp, making his first-team debut aged just 16 in a friendly against Porto, then managed by Jose Mourinho.
His league debut then came when he was introduced as a substitute against Espanyol, and he scored his first senior goal against Albacete, becoming the youngest ever scorer for the club.
Becoming a Superstar
By the 2005 – 2006 season Messi had established himself as a first team regular, with performances of such quality that he was named Young World Player of the Year for three successive years between 2006 and 2008.
Plagued by injuries in his early years principally caused by muscular problems, Messi adopted a new diet, training regime and lifestyle changes which made him more robust physically, and better able to withstand the challenges of top-level football. As a result, despite being regularly subject to massive problems, Messi is relatively injury-free nowadays and will miss matches more to give him a rest than because he is in the treatment room.
Barcelona enjoyed their greatest success under manager Pep Guardiola. Employing Messi as the focal point of the attack, with Xavi and Andrés Iniesta pulling strings in midfield, the team adopted a style of football that became known as Tiki Taka. Evolving from the total football methodology first introduced to the Nou Camp by Johann Cruyff in the 1970s, Guardiola grew it into a game based on possession, short passing, and movement. So successful did it become that the Spain national side adopted it, helping them to win the World Cup in 2010, and the Euros in both 2008 and 2012.
The apogee of Barcelona’s success came between 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the side won an unprecedented five trophies – La Liga, the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, the Super Copa de Espaňa, and the FIFA Club World Cup. Messi himself set a new Barcelona record, scoring 53 goals, and becoming the first player in Spanish history to break the 50-goal benchmark in a single campaign.
The following year he went one better. He beat a 57-year record to become the team’s top goal scorer of all time and scored 73 goals in all competitions, a new European history. Combined with the goals he scored in an Argentina shirt, Messi scored a total of 91 goals in that calendar year, a figure which is unlikely to be emulated for the foreseeable future.
Since Guardiola left Spain, there have been signs that Barcelona has been suffering a decline, the most tangible manifestation of which has come in the Champions League, where, in successive years, they have thrown away three-goal advantages at the semi-final stage, first to Roma, and then, this year, to Liverpool. Still dominant domestically, they have never regularly replaced Xavi and Iniesta, and have become too reliant on Messi to win games for them by himself. Football is a team sport, and, however, gifted an individual might be, they cannot win matches by themselves – not often anyway.
Messi’s biggest disappointment has come on the international stage with Argentina. Despite being the country’s leading goal scorer of all time, with 65 goals in 129 appearances, all he has to show for his efforts is an Olympic gold medal from Beijing and a winner’s medal from the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
However, in the biggest tournaments, his team have always come up short, most notably in 2014 when, with Messi as captain, Argentina reached the World Cup final, only to go down to Germany after extra time. Half fit, Messi had chances to win the match for his country in average time, but the opportunities went begging.
He has also finished on the losing side in 3 Copa América finals. In his first, the 2007 tournament, Messi barely featured due to his age, but by the time that the 2015 and 2016 finals rolled around, his side was heavily tipped to end their trophy hoodoo, only to lose out on both occasions to Chile.
Part of the problem is that international tournaments are played in the summer, and Messi is always tired after a long and arduous European season. Another issue is that the Argentine side that he has played in is of a lower standard than that of previous generations. As brilliant a player as he is, too often he has been asked to carry the team by himself on his narrow shoulders. With Barcelona, he is surrounded with top quality players in every area on the pitch, but the national side a not a patch on his regular team.
There is also the fact that he is not as appreciated in his native country as he is in Spain. In part, this is because he never played professional football in Argentina, but left for Barcelona when he was just 13. There is not the same identity with him as there was with players like Carlos Tevez, Gabriel Bautista, or Diego Maradona, all of whom had careers with one of the two major Buenos Aires sides, River Plate and Boca Juniors, before departing for Europe.
The pressure to succeed with Argentina has proved too much on several occasions, and he has retired from international football in 2016, and, at least unofficially, in 2018. Each time though he has been persuaded back, and is expected to lead his country at this year’s Copa América in Brazil.
Style of Play
Short of stature – he is only 5 feet 7 inches tall – Messi has a low center of gravity which contributes to his ability to change direction quickly, and evades opponents. Primarily left-footed, he will often initiate attacks from the right and cut in, often leaving a trail of defenders in his wake. He relies on short bursts of acceleration to get away from opponents – his former manager Pep Guardiola once said he was the only player he had ever seen who can run faster with the ball than without it.
Messi is one of the best free kick takers in world football, although, he is less confident from 12 yards. A regular penalty taker for club and country, he has missed quite a few kicks in recent years, as goalkeepers have learned where he likes to place the ball.
What distinguishes Messi from most other players is that, although he is one of the best strikers in world football, he is not a forward in the classical sense. Instead, he often operates as a playmaker, starting attacks and combining with teammates to set up chances for others.
Now 31, Messi is under contract with Barcelona until 2021 and has made it clear that they are the only club that he will ever play for in Europe. He has, however, expressed the desire to play for Newells Old Boys back in Argentina before he retires, so perhaps local fans will one day get the chance to see the footballing star in the flesh regularly. Whether this ever happens or he decides to quit at the top with the Catalan side, he has already ensured a lasting legacy in the game.
And, if he could secure this year’s Copa América with Argentina, he might feel that he had achieved almost everything in soccer that he could.