Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Magical Athlete

Every generation of fans believes, and is entitled to believe, that it has watched the all-time great of a sport during its time.

Cobb-to-Ruth-to-Gehrig-to-Williams-to-Mays-to-Ripken-to-Bonds-to-Pujols in baseball. Thorpe-to-Harmon-to-Unitas-to-Brown-to-Sanders-to-Favre-to-Manning-to-Rodgers in football. Mathews-to-Di Stefano-to-Puskas-to-Pele-to-Cruyff-to-Maradona-to-Zidane-to-_______ in soccer.

It is impossible, of course, to compare athletes from one generation to the next because the rules of the game, the playing conditions, and the size and conditioning of the athletes varies so much, as does the level of competition. But every generation gives athletes and fans a new opportunity to say they were, or at least saw, the best that ever was.

In the soccer world, that opportunity, and that blank above, is filled by Lionel Messi. At the age of 24, middle age and in his prime in soccer years, Messi this past week set the all-time record for goals scored for his club, Barcelona. To put things in perspective, the record stood for 57 years and was set by a player (Cesar Rodriguez) who played 16 seasons for the club. This is Messi's eighth season as a professional.

235 celebrations and counting.

He has won the Golden Ball award (or the Ballon d'Or -- yes, FIFA's awards are in French too), given to the outstanding soccer player in Europe, three years in a row and should win a fourth at the end of this season.  This past weekend he set the record for goals in all competitions in one season by a Spanish player (55) and he still has two months to play. A goal against AC Milan in the Champions League Wednesday will give him the record for goals in a single Champions League season, which he already earned a share of last season.

And he has done it all with humility and as the ultimate team player, who would just as soon make a pass to set up a goal as score it (he finished fourth in La Liga in assists last season). Unlike the all-time great footballer to whom comparisons are most easily made, Maradona, Messi shuns the limelight.

Messi and Maradona are both Argentines. Both came from humble origins (Messi's father was a steelworker and his mother a part-time cleaner; Maradona was born in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires). Both are short of stature (Messi is 5'7"; Maradona 5'5"), which lends them to both being "one with the ball." 

Incredibly, Messi would likely have not reached that height, and perhaps would not have reached the heights that he has in soccer, if not for his club, Barcelona. While many players owe much to clubs, and the clubs demand much in return, Messi truly owes his career to Barca. At the age of 13 Messi was a frail, 4'6" youngster with enormous talent, but with a huge stumbling block to success -- a growth hormone deficiency. Argentine clubs were unable to pay for the expensive treatments, as was Messi's family. After a tryout with a Barca scout, Messi was signed to a contract on the back of a paper napkin and he and his father moved to Spain, where Messi grew in stature and as a player.

How can you not root for a guy with that personal history? How can that not be a lesson to everyone, athlete or not, that obstacles are made to be overcome, and the more spectacularly the better?

Assuming he avoids major injuries in the next decade, Messi will set records that may never be broken. Even if Argentina does not win a World Cup during his time with its national team (which some will insist must happen before he can be considered the best player of all time alongside Pele and Maradona), his accomplishments may demand that he be placed at the top of the list.

Regardless, if you get the chance, watch Messi and his mates take on Milan this Wednesday. Then, someday, you'll be able to tell your grand kids: "I saw the best there ever was. I saw Messi in his prime."

As a hint of what you might see, here are the highlights from Messi's five goal performance against Bayer Leverkusen earlier this year in the Champions League. And, if you've never played -- those two  chips that he had over the keeper? They're way, way more difficult than just blasting the ball into the back of the net.

No comments:

Post a Comment