It took barely 25 minutes of last night’s game with Real Betis to reach the landmark, but Leo Messi is finally, officially, the player to have scored the most goals in a single calendar year. Gerd Müller’s previous mark of 85 was equalled with a goal which typifies Messi. Receiving the ball on the edge of the area, there are two players onto him immediately. A third arrives, Messi takes them all on and dribbles towards the left, past a fourth and scores with impudent ease. The Rósario born genius sees space before others realise it is there, and once he has identified where it is, he sets off on dribbles that are almost unstoppable now. Minutes later, following a neat one-two with Andrés Iniesta, Messi broke the record we all knew he would smash sooner rather than later.
The record breaking goal itself typifies what so many love about Messi. Receiving the ball about 30 yards out with space to run into, it looked perfectly set up for a trademark dribble and finish from the Argentine. Yet even with history staring him in face, Messi remained unselfish, approaching the edge of the penalty area and playing the ball into Iniesta. Could you imagine the Barcelona star’s arch rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, displaying similar altruism in the same situation? Thought not. Yet if there is one player who epitomises unselfishness, it is Iniesta himself, and so he was having none of it. A neat backheel set Messi up perfectly and he dispatched the first time finish past Adrián in the Betis goal.
That is what is so incredible about Messi. He makes the extraordinary ordinary. So many records have fallen to the Argentine, the history books may as well be ripped up and dropped off at his home for rewriting by the mercurial forward himself. What he wants to achieve he will. The most prolific club level scorer in Europe in a season. The all time record goalscorer in La Liga. The top marksman in the Champions League four seasons running. The first player to score five goals in a Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen last year. Barcelona’s all time leading goalscorer. The top scorer in a single La Liga season than any other player. The most hat tricks in a single La Liga season. The most goals scored in the Spanish Super Cup. The most consecutive La Liga games to score in. Five La Liga titles. Three Champions League winners medals. An Olympic gold medal. The most international goals scored in a single year. The most club goals in a year. Now the top scorer in a calendar year of all time, and all by the age of 25.
Messi is also the fourth player, after Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten, to win three Ballon D’Ors. Few would bet against him making it four in Zurich next month. Now that he is firing for Argentina too, few would bet against him adding the World Cup to his list of honours in Brazil in 2014.
Discussions will inevitably be had over whether he is the greatest, ever. Maybe he is, but that will be a debate best had for when he has retired. Pele and Diego Maradona, as is always mentioned, won the World Cup, something Messi is yet to do. Although many consider Pele the greatest ever, most of his Brazilian countrymen consider Garrincha to be the deserving holder of that crown. And Johan Cruyff surely deserves a mention in the debate too, given all he achieved with Ajax and Barcelona. If the greatest ever is measured in legacy, surely Cruyff has done more than any other player to influence the game.
But what Messi has done already certainly puts him into that discussion to be had 10 or 15 years time from now. Until then, we should simply enjoy his remarkable talent.
There is a need we feel as football fans to justify Messi’s talent in order to feel that we are enjoying watching him. The truth is we cannot know yet. What we can do is enjoy the simplistic yet outrageous brilliance of his game. So much of what Messi does looks relatively normal. There are few fancy stepovers, tricks or flicks. It is simply a case of having feet which are so much faster than anyone else’s. Messi is able to consistently trick defenders into thinking that they have a chance of tackling him, only to shuffle the ball a few inches one way or the other and dart away from them with his brisk acceleration. There are many, many footballers who at school were that good that they could dribble the length of the field to score at will. As players mature tactically and grow physically, most who are able to do that at youth level find that they can no longer win a game on their own in such a way. Messi still has that, and is the only player in the world today who retains that ability to simply do it all on his own. That plays havoc with defences, which still have not managed to figure out a way to stop the 5”8 superstar. The quickest feet in history, quite possibly, sublime close control, bravery and humility are what make Messi what he is.
On the night when he broke Muller’s record, a Colombian called Radamel Falcao struck five goals in one game against Deportivo la Coruña. Perhaps that is the best way to sum up the brilliance that is Leo Messi. So remarkable is the Argentine, that Falcao’s stupendous feat barely gets a mention. That is how far Messi has lifted the bar. Expect it to keep rising.