Leonel Messi – A player who makes us dream!

26 04 2009
The 21 year old Barcelona superstar.......a lengend in the making!

The 21 year old Barcelona superstar.......a lengend in the making!

Here’s a not too debatable list of the great players around today: Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Kaka. And here are some recent greats: Ronaldinho, Zinedane Zidane, Luis Figo, the Brazilian Ronaldo.

Who’s missing? Lionel Messi. Why? Because he is not in the same category, because he belongs in another, altogether more exclusive list. Messi is more than merely great, in the rather promiscuous, diminished sense that we use the word when we talk football; he is sensational. After two decades of waiting, a new Messiah (as he is known in Barcelona) has arrived, a player worthy of standing alongside Diego Maradona and Pelé, two natural-born geniuses, in a class of their own.

Big words, big claim. But wait until the two Champions League semi-final games between Chelsea and Barcelona are over in 2 days’ time and ask the three defenders, poor souls, that Guus Hiddink will instruct to cluster around the Argentinian when he receives the ball (fewer than three, Hiddink must surely know by now, is suicide); ask the Chelsea fans (whether their team reaches the final or not, for football outcomes are capricious), ask the hundreds of millions of television-watching neutrals around the world and they will all have come around by then to what everybody in Spain already knows, as seasoned football insiders everywhere know, that Messi is not just the best player in the world, he is, at 21 years old, a step away from taking his place in a new trinity of historical greats.

Who are these seasoned insiders? Try these: Fabio Capello, Alfredo di Stefano, Marco van Basten,  Man United Wayne Rooney Maradona himself and Jorge Valdanoa World Cup winner alongside Maradona, whose talent he venerates. Try every player at Barcelona, including Thierry Henry, who has been around, seen a bit and has a pretty high opinion (entirely justified) of his own footballing merits too.

Yet on the subject of Messi, Henry is humility itself. For the Frenchman, who played on many occasions with Zidane, it is silly even to ask whether his Argentine teammate is better than, say, Cristiano Ronaldo. “I have played with a lot of players but Leo is something unique,” Henry said recently. “Leo does things only he knows how to do. The only person I have seen do such things is Maradona.”

Henry paused after saying that, as if sensing he was stepping into sacrilegious terrain. He took stock, weighed his words, pondered their possible effect on his young friend, and then continued: “Look, I . . . I don’t want to put pressure on Leo but, well . . . you have to say it: he seems a lot like Maradona.”

When Messi gives interviews he is even more excruciatingly timid and inexpressive than David Beckham was at the same age. There, all similarity with England’s best-known individual since Princess Diana ends. Beckham leads two lives in parallel, celebrity and football player. The ball is Messi’s only means of expression. He concentrates every atom in his being on the pitch; off it he is a shadow. Carlos Bilardo, the coach who won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, has said of him: “If you were to do an X-ray of his body, you’d see a round object attached to the end of his foot.”

Look at his body from the outside and you see no earrings, no tattoos, no fancy shoes or shirts. People close to him say he hates to draw attention to himself and is as unlikely ever to buy a Ferrari as are his old neighbours in the working-class district of Rosario, a dull industrial city 200 miles north of Buenos Aires, where he was born. (He drives, for the record, an Audi 4×4 supplied by his club.)

Small as a child (they nicknamed him “la pulga”, the flea), he began playing team games at the age of four, usually with children two years older than himself. His grandmother took him along the first time, having seen that in or out of the house he spent every waking moment obsessively, almost autistically, with a ball by his side – which is what they said about Maradona when he was small. Despite Messi’s tiny build, he instantly became the star of his team and has remained as such to this day, in what every expert in Spain (not excluding the Real Madrid coach, Juande Ramos) regards as the best Barcelona team in history. He arrived at the club in 2001, aged 13, partly because of the inability of his Argentine club, Newell’s Old Boys, to find the money for the growth hormone vaccination treatment (daily for three years) that he badly needed.

As Messi told in an interview a year and a half ago, the Barcelona football philosophy, drummed into the players at youth level, suited him to perfection. It is all about what they call “loving the ball”. The club’s investment in him, which involved putting up his family in Barcelona and paying his father, a former steelworker, a salary, proved astute in the 2004 pre-season, when he made his debut at Camp Nou against Juventus. “That,” Messi told , with an extraordinarily unusual flash of pride, “was the day when people got to know who I was.”

Ronaldinho was there, at his peak, but Messi was the game’s outstanding player. Capello, then manager of the Italian club, said afterwards, “Where did that ‘diavolo’ [devil] come from?” The game has probably never seen a more electric dribbler, one who has played at a faster pace with the ball so close to his feet. His football brain is as fast as his feet, and both are faster than those of any defender he has ever faced. On top of that, the lethal advantage he has over those who mark him is that his control is such that, as he runs with the ball, his eyes are scanning the horizon, computing the position of every player over an angle of 180 degrees. Hence his eye for the impeccably weighted and directed killer pass.

And then there are his goals: that replica of Maradona’s classic against England at Mexico 1986 in a Spanish cup game two years ago; his hat-trick against Real Madrid at Camp Nou in the same season; a goal for Argentina against Mexico in July 2007, a diagonal lob over the goalkeeper running at full speed that was so implausibly perfect the Argentina coach at the time, Alfio Basile, suggested the stadium should be closed down, for they would never see anything like it again.

This season, Messi – who tackles back, is uncomplainingly brave in the face of terrible punishment and has scored 34 goals so far – has flowered into the complete footballer. Alfredo di Stefano, who was precisely that in Real Madrid’s heroic age, said this of him recently: “He is No 1 because he plays and makes others play; he creates and he finishes.”

Consider these official Uefa statistics from the current Champions League. He is the top scorer in the competition with eight goals and he is third equal in assists, of which he has made four. Ronaldo, who has played 83 minutes more, has scored twice, with one assist. Messi’s ratio of goals to shots is one in three; Ronaldo’s, one in 25. “The two of them are great players,” said Capello in February, “but nobody in the world has the talent that Messi has.”

Messi, the England manager added, “is Maradona’s successor”. Last month he went further. “Messi does things that others don’t even think about. Every era has its superstar, like Pelé or Maradona, and Messi can be the superstar of the next decade.”

Van Basten, Milan’s former Dutch goalscoring sensation, has recently declared that Messi is “the world’s greatest talent”. Messi’s Barcelona teammate, the Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o, is Europe’s top goalscorer this season. Recently, he was heard asking the little Argentinian at a post-game press gathering: “Leo, why are you so good?” Then Eto’o, who is no shrinking violet when describing his own talent, told reporters: “He does things no one has ever done before. He is the new Maradona. He is a player who makes us dream.”

Here’s what Wayne Rooney ( a player considered to be Englands own Messi) had to say when he was compared to Messi – ” I don’t think I’ve quite got his trickery but Messi is one of my favourite players and one of the best ever.  I have never seen someone control the ball so well at full pace!!. Another amazing thing about this guy is how he manages to change direction again at full speed. I honestly have not seen anyone do that as well as him. Most players wouldnt even think of doing that for the fear of injury.”

What does Maradona himself, his coach in the Argentina national side, say? He has betrayed in the past what Argentinian journalists describe as a certain competitive ambiguity, accusing Messi last year of being too selfish on the ball (a claim his teammates hotly dispute).

But in recent weeks, as if understanding that his only chance of World Cup glory as Argentina coach rests on his successor’s slim shoulders, Maradona has become more effusive, saying, for example: “Messi is a phenomenon”; “The pitch belongs to him”; and “I hope he turns out to be better than me.” According to a source from a Argentina forum, after a game against France in Paris in February, which Argentina won and in which Messi scored another wonder goal, Maradona was overheard confiding in a group of friends, with what sounded like a curious mix of misgiving and wonder: “Well, let’s see now if it really turns out that he is going to be better than me.”

Maradona’s goalscoring teammate from the 1986 World Cup final, Valdano, believes Messi will be as good. In a recent interview, Valdano noted that Messi, at 21, was a more mature player than Maradona at the same age. He also remarked with convincing modesty that Messi had the good fortune, which Pelé had and Maradona did not, of playing in a truly great team, namely the present Barcelona one. “He has mental speed, physical speed and speed of technique: three crushing propositions in the face of any rival,” said Valdano. “He is one of the greats. He feels happier playing football than doing anything else. On the pitch he feels the king of the world.”

He feels it, and he is it. Just watch on Tuesday evening.

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