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Greatness Personified- Lionel Messi's March Into History

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That we are in the midst of a golden era at the Camp Nou is undeniable. In the seven seasons prior to the one just started, FC Barcelona has captured three Champions League crowns, five La Liga titles, five Supercopas de España, a pair of UEFA Supercups, a Club World Cup and a Copa del Rey.

Beyond the otherworldly run of team success, however, something special has been unfolding at the Camp Nou. Something once-in-a-lifetime special. While the current dynasty was sparked in the middle of the last decade by the brilliance of Ronaldinho, it was not until after the toothy Brazilian’s departure that it reached its pinnacle. Seldom does a club bid adieu to a two-time World Footballer of the Year and proven champion with both club and country- admittedly one that had become increasingly injury-prone and was clearly exhibiting signs of dramatic decline.

Then again, seldom is a club afforded the luxury of celebrating the exit of one of the greatest players of a generation by simply handing the reigns to one of the greatest individual talents the game has ever seen. It’s impossible to credit any one man for a period of such sustained greatness, particularly given Barcelona’s incredible stockpile of attacking talent, but Lionel Messi is building as strong a case for such an honor as you’re ever going to see in club football.

One of the game’s all-time great prodigies, Messi has not only cemented his name atop the list of today’s superstars, he is poised to enter football lore as this generation’s transcendent star. To watch him make the incredible seem mundane is to know that you are watching greatness. Messi’s game does not feature the step-overs and theatrics that we’ve come to expect from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. Rather, his greatness is defined by a ridiculous combination of speed, agility, maneuverability and ball control, with little in the way of wasted effort.

Going back to the middle of the last century, every decade has featured a phenomenal talent whose star outshone those of his contemporaries. In the 1940s and 50s it was another Argentine, Alfredo Di Stéfano; the 1960s belonged to Pelé; Johan Cruyff dominated the 1970s for Ajax and Barcelona; the 1980s brought the brilliance of Messi’s countryman, Diego Maradona; the 1990s and early-21st Century brought the duel of greatness between Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho. Messi is not only a lock to enter the pantheon as the face of his era, but barring catastrophic injury, is poised to trump the accomplishments (for club, not yet for country- elephant acknowledged) of the legends that preceded him.

As of June 2008, he’d won two La Liga medals, a Champions’ League medal and the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, in which he was the top scorer and Most Outstanding Player. He’d become the youngest player to appear (and score) in a World Cup for Argentina, and had netted 42 goals in 110 games with Barcelona, becoming the youngest goal scorer in the club’s history as well.

On top of all that, he was named 2005’s Argentine Player of the Year (at age 18), 2006’s Young Player of the Year by both World Soccer magazine and FIFPro and Europe’s U-21 Footballer of the Year in 2007. That year, he also won La Liga’s Foreign Player of the Year and the EFE Trophy, awarded to the top Ibero-American (Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Central and South America) player in Spain.

This was all, y’know, prior to his 21st birthday.

In the years since, he’s continued building a resume that compares favorably to any player of comparable age in history not named Pelé. He’s made a mockery of the difficulty associated with finding the back of the net against top-flight competition. Messi has suited up in 276 official appearances across all competitions for FC Barcelona senior squad at just 24 years of age, scoring 189 goals, netting multiple goals a staggering 61 times (22.1% of the time), with at least three in a game on ten occasions. He’s certainly not lacked for efficiency in racking up his gaudy numbers, scoring on ~22% of roughly 860 shots and tickling the twine with an awesome 44% of his shots on goal. And lest you think "La Pugla" is nothing more than a monomaniacal gunner, he’s assisted on another 80 Barcelona goals over the past 6+ seasons, including a career-best 24 last season and seven in seven games this season.

The aforementioned goal tally places Messi third in history for goals scored in all competitions as a member of FC Barcelona. The man currently heading the list is César Rodríguez Álvarez, who scored 235 times for the club between 1939 and 1955, the last of his goals coming at age 35. Next up is Laszlo Kubala, a Hungarian transplant who struck 196 times in 11 seasons with Barcelona, also doing so into his mid-30s. If Messi is able to maintain his current, obscene scoring pace (100 goals in 108 games the past two seasons, and nine in seven games in 2011-12), he will occupy the top spot on this list before his 25th birthday. To put this in perspective, in 741 games over 16 seasons Real Madrid legend Raúl, one of the great goal scorers in La Liga history, managed 323 goals.

Similarly, in league play, his 124 goals, again, trail only the totals for Rodríguez (195) and Kubala (131). Messi should lay claim to #2 some time in the coming weeks, and is unlikely to have to wait past his 26th birthday to overtake Rodríguez.

In terms of Champions League scoring, in 58 appearances Messi has tallied 37 goals, 11 shy of Andriy Shevchenko’s record total of 48. If he is able to replicate last season’s 12-goal performance in the competition- which itself tied Ruud van Nistelrooy’s single-season record- he’d lay claim to the top spot there as well.

Finally, looking at overall goal totals, a figure that takes into account friendlies and exhibitions (a sketchy figure, as it’s believed that totals for players whose careers predated widespread media coverage are somewhat inflated), Messi ranks seventh in club history with 206, just over halfway to Paulino Alcântara’s record of 357. Messi is a virtual lock to vault to #1 before age 30, and has a decent shot at doing so by 27 or 28. Incredible.

Now, the true magic of Lionel Messi’s game cannot be quantified. It’s even difficult to put into words. What makes him so special? Maybe it’s the size, or rather, lack of size. Due to a growth hormone deficiency, he stands just 5’7" tall and weighs less than 150 pounds, making his ability to command the attention of every defender on the field all the more amazing. His counterparts dwarf him and his own uniform often appears several sizes too large, but he is never overmatched. It’s as though the gods thought it unfair to couple that talent with an imposing physique.

He’s drawn comparisons to Maradona, not the least of which came from Maradona himself, who has said, "Messi is my Maradona." This is hardly shocking given their shared heritage, as well as each man’s diminutive stature and penchant for singlehandedly mounting a devastating attack:

Is it the way the ball sticks to his feet? The way he slithers through, and flies past, world-class defenders, making them look peg-legged and possibly inebriated? His apparent immunity to mental blunders? Yes… but there’s more.

It’s the way in which he commands the attention of everyone watching. From opposing defenders to television viewers thousands of miles away, to his own teammates, Messi never fails to mesmerize, whether he’s playing for a championship or in a preseason exhibition (I know, I know, not for Argentina’s senior national team. Whatever.).

Lionel Messi not only lives up to the hype, he exceeds it. From his hat trick in March 2007 against Real Madrid (the first of his career and the first in a Clásico since 1994-95), to his awe-inspiring, Maradona-like goal against Getafe in the 2007 Copa del Rey, to his four-goal annihilation of Arsenal in the second leg of last season’s Champions League quarterfinal, to an incredible flick and volley in 2007-08 that left Sevilla keeper Andres Palop frozen in his tracks, to Sunday’s hat trick in the 8-0 drubbing of Osasuna- on the heels of consecutive disappointing results- Messi seizes a moment in a way that only the truly special ones do.

Now, just over a month into the 2011-12 season, it’s obvious that he’s picked up where he left off last season, when he scored 53 times in 55 games, frequently delivering plays that seem to take the game to its highest elevation. Despite my best efforts, however, one can only comprehend what separates Lionel Messi from his peers by watching him play. Only then is it apparent that the man that is often the smallest player in the game is in fact its biggest star, and perhaps already the greatest individual force in the history of Spanish football.

Until next time...

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