“Messi came walking through the hall with the match ball and was bouncing it on the floor, like a little boy who just wants to play”, Swedish reporter Frida Nordstrand said after the Champions League quarter-final against Arsenal on April 6th, 2010. Just minutes earlier, the Argentinian had scored four goals against Arsene Wenger’s team to send them out of the tournament.
We all know the story of Lionel Messi. How he was born in Rosario in Argentina and immediately impressed people with his tremendous talent. How he, at 11 years old, was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency and no club in his native Argentina could or would pay for treatment which led to FC Barcelona sporting director Carles Rexach being made aware of the youngster and inviting him for a trial. How he signed his first contract on a napkin and enrolled in the FC Barcelona academy as a 13-year-old.
The video above shows Messi as a 10-year-old, playing in Argentina. In the footage of the game we see a lot of the things we’ve now witnessed in Champions League finals and World Cups; the wonderful first touch, the ability to beat players with ease and the quality of finishing to name a few. What sticks with me though, is the part when he is standing and juggling with the ball. Not once does he lose control of the ball so it hits the ground, but you can see the complete focus to just watching the ball and connecting with it sweetly. He is so concentrated on the ball that he doesn’t notice the number of people around him increasing, with them watching him in complete awe and admiration for his talent. He never looks up, not even once. It is just him and his ball, he just wants to play.
Four years after joining the club, he made his debut under Frank Rijkaard on October 16th 2004 against city rivals Espanyol, which was ten years ago on Thursday. With number 30 on his back, he instantly showed the potential he had. Among his first touches of the ball was receiving a pass on the right, drawing a defender close before going past him, and then another, before setting up an opportunity for the team to attack on the opposite side. That little move has been seen so many times since then that it is impossible to not know which one I’m talking about. He gets the ball and keeps it glued to his left-foot while protecting it with his body, draws the defender in and then just the second when the defenders thinks he’s going to knick it off him, he explodes, accelerating away and leaving the defender humiliated. He’s done it to all of them; Vidic, Ferdinand, Ramos, Terry, Nesta, Cannavaro, he’s humilitated them all and he started it already on his debut. And he will continue to do so. The first goal came at the end of that season, against Albacete. Ronaldinho played him in with a brilliant scooped pass only for Messi to score with an excellent lob. From here, he never looked back.
On March 10 2007 Messi scored a brilliant hat-trick in El Clasico against Real Madrid, which promted Diego Armando Maradona to speak out:
“I already know the player who will take my place in football, and his name is Lionel Messi. He has something different from any other player. He is a leader who is showing an example.”
The man mostly credited with turning Messi in to the player we’ve witnessed over the last decade is Pep Guardiola. Although it’s important to remember that Messi was already an excellent player before Guardiola’s appointment in 2008, proved by the fact he came third in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2007 behind Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, it was now that Messi reached unimaginable heights. From the beginning of the first season, 2008/09, Guardiola did what Rijkaard had done before, which meant playing Messi as the right-sided attacker in the 4-3-3 system. Messi continued to flourish but when he was moved centrally towards the end of the campaign was when we really started to see the player who was later going to be acknowledge by many as the best ever. He scored 38 goals that season as Barca won the treble, and the following season he produced 47. The year after was another increase as he scored 53 goals in 55 games which is nothing short of remarkable. The season after, 11/12, is the best in Messi’s career in terms of scoring goals. In 60 games across all competitions, he scored an insane 73 goals including an outrageous 50 league goals in 37 games. Those numbers are previously unheard of and it is clear that the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid meant the two were working tirelessly to outscore each other. Probably more so on Ronaldo’s part, as you get the impression Messi isn’t really bothered by things like that. Of course, though, he’s a competitor and when challenged from another phenomenal player he wanted to prove he was better.
The following season was the first without Guardiola after four hugely successful years but that had seemingly no effect on Messi as he continued he’s unbeliveable goalscoring form, now netting 60 goals in 50 games. Last season was one where Messi was said to be on the slide and that he wasn’t as good as previously. He struggled a bit with injuries, but still scored 41 goals in 46 games which is numbers only Ronaldo can match. This season has seen Messi play nine games so far, and scoring seven goals as well as providing seven assists.
That is another thing about Messi, he doesn’t only score goals. In his 434 Barcelona games he’s scored 361 goals and has made 135 assists. He has truly been the ultimate player as he can do everything. He dribbles people, he scores more goals than anyone else, he makes a lot of assists, he’s a great passer, he can move into midfield and control the game and he is as quick with the ball as he is without it. Also, especially under Guardiola, Messi was a hard-working attacker, who pressed brilliantly and intensively to make sure Barca always got the ball back quickly. Because then he could play.
The video above shows Messi’s top 50 goals. They include every goal you can imagine; chips, lobs, solo runs, long distance belters, neat finishes in tight spaces, one-on-one’s, free-kicks and headers. Obviously, he also scores penalties. If you think about it, a fair amount of the goals are scored with his right-foot. Another testiment to his talent to do that with his wrong foot, especially when some of them are chips or lobs, which some players can’t even pull off with their best foot.
There is always going to be a debate about who is the best player of all time, but for me it’s an easy answer. Lionel Messi is the best player ever. He’s dominated football in a way I’ve never seen a player do. He’s won a lot of titles, and is the only player to win four Ballon d’Or’s. So far.
Yes, he has never won a World Cup, and probably never will. He had his chance this summer when he, along with Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano, dragged an average side all the way to the final where Germany of course won in extra time. He was named the best player in the tournament. That is all right, isn’t it?
I consider myself fortunate to have been able to watch this genius at work over the last decade, and I will continue to enjoy his quality during the next. Pep Guardiola said: “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him.” I have now written about him, I’ve tried to describe him, and I promise that I’m going to watch him. And, in 30 years, when people ask me, “That Messi, what was he like?”, I’m just simply going to answer:
“Lionel Messi was the best player ever. He could do everything, but most importantly, he just wanted to play.”
If you don’t agree with me, then maybe you will agree with these guys below?
“I was a big fan of Maradona growing up and of the current crop Ronaldo is good but Messi is the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t dish out praise lightly but Messi deserves it. I look for weaknesses in his game and I can’t find them.” – Roy Keane
“In my entire life I have never seen a player of such quality and personality at such a young age, particularly wearing the ‘heavy’ shirt of one of the world’s great clubs.” – Fabio Capello
“Messi does not need his right foot. He only uses the left and he’s still the best in the world. Imagine if he also used his right foot, Then we would have serious problems.” – Zlatan Ibrahimovic
“I like Messi a lot, he’s a great player. Technically, we’re practically at the same level.” – Pele
“Who is the Best Player in the World? Leo Messi. Who is the Best Player Ever? Leo Messi.” – Arsene Wenger
“Diego [Maradona] filled us with emotions. But between the cracks, without doubt, Messi is better than Maradona.” – Diego Simeone
“For the world of football, Messi is a treasure because he is role model for children around the world… Messi will be the player to win the most Ballons d’Or in history. He will win five, six, seven. He is incomparable. He’s in a different league.” – Johan Cruyff
“We give him the ball and stand back and watch. People often say to me they saw Pele and Maradona play. In the future, I will be able to say I saw Messi play.” – Thiago Alcanatara
“Messi is class. There is him, and then there is the rest. What he does is extraordinary.” – Franck Ribery
“It is clear that Messi is on a level above all others. Those who do not see that are blind.” – Xavi
“Messi is God, as a person and even more as a player. I knew him when he was a boy and I’ve watched him grow. He deserves it all.” – Samuel Eto’o
“Although he may not be human, it’s good that Messi still thinks he is.” – Javier Mascherano
“They tell me that all men are equal in God’s eyes, this player makes you seriously think about those words.” – Football commentator Ray Hudson
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