• Breaking News

    Monday, June 27, 2016

    What if Lionel Messi is no longer the greatest footballer in the world?

    He has driven Argentina to the finals of the World Cup, but are we witnessing the first signs that the Barcelona star is on the wane?

    What if Leo Messi is not the greatest player in the world?

    It might seem a strange question to ask on the day he will be the focal point of a team in the World Cup final, but there you have it.

    Don’t worry, this isn’t coming from a Cristiano Ronaldo troll, or from an English fan who thinks Messi will never be able to do it on a cold, wet night in Stoke. Xavi and Iniesta (and indeed Busquets) are great, among the greatest ever, but Messi’s brilliance cannot simply be put down to the men who pass the ball to him at Barcelona. La Pulga may not perform at the same level for Argentina as he does week after week for the Catalans, but now that he has taken his country to the World Cup finals, even that old bugbear can be put to rest.

    No, this comes from a Messi-manic, a Barcelona-bhakt with a much greater primal fear: what happens when Messi is no longer the same player? Worse, what if he’s already entered his twilight years?
    Ever since Ronaldinho made his famous statement after winning the Ballon D’Or in 2006, when Messi was just 16 – “this award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona” – fans of the Catalan club have gotten used to having a footballing god in their midst. It took a little longer to bring the Argentinians on board, but the Olympic gold medal in 2008 did the job.

    It hasn’t helped that, much before he became captain of the Albiceleste, there were comparisons to the other Argentine, the fellow diminutive left-footed genius who could turn games around with a jink and a shimmy. Indeed, at age 9, when he was told that he had a serious hormone deficiency, Messi asked his doctor, “will I grow?” The answer was prescient. “You will be taller than Maradona…I don’t know if you will be better, but you will be taller.”

    And then came that goal in 2007, which almost move-for-move recreated Maradona’s extraplanetary effort against England. Both ran half the pitch in little over 10 seconds, covering about 60 metres, touching the ball 13 times with their left feet and beat six rivals to score. The resemblance was no longer incidental. Messi was asking, demanding even, to be called the greatest ever (never mind Pele).
    It’s easy to presume today that he was always destined for this, not least because of what appears to be a sanitised Tendulkar-esque life. Cristiano Ronaldo has the GQ shoots and the Victoria’s Secret model for a girlfriend, Pele has an ego the size of Alpha Centauri and Maradona had cocaine. Leo? Take away the football and there is no Messi. If the anecdotes don’t convince, let the actual statistics do the job: Lionel Messi is impossible.

    It’s true even as an athlete. It’s not all that hard to see Ronaldo winning tackles on a rugby field or Virat Kohli making some decent runs on a football pitch. LeBron James could probably play any sport he wanted to. But Messi, again, just like Tendulkar, seems like he was built for this sport.

    Yet hundreds of Messis have come through the doors of La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy, over the years. Hundreds of kids who show similar promise, turning up in YouTube videos that are usually titled “the new Messi,” before the law of averages has its cruel say. Some of those new Messis can barely make it onto competitive football teams today. The one who makes it isn’t just lucky or, as his constant effort is otherwise demeaned, “destined for greatness.”

    He’s determined, relentless and above all insatiable. There might be no Messi without a football to us from afar, but it often seems like it’s true to him as well. Just as the Chicago Bulls had to stop Michael Jordan from playing at every opportunity he got, lest he get injured and miss out on the playoffs, Messi hates not being put on. Carlos Bilardo, a former manager of the Argentina national team, once said that if you took an X-ray of Messi, you’d find a football attached to his left foot.

    So what happens when he loses that drive? Some have suggested that it has already happened. Last year’s hamstring injury is being blamed, the terrifying suggestion emanating that it is one of those quiet injuries that changes an athlete for life.

    Messi has been brilliant at this World Cup. Argentina is in the final because of him. But he has also been on the periphery of the action for much of the tournament. Yes, opposing teams have two or even three players to mark his every move, but he still feels a couple of seconds slower. His father has said as much, claiming Messi is so tired that his legs feel like 100 kgs each. The fact is, at some point the brilliance will end.

    He might be just 27, but he’s also been playing top-level football for a decade now. Now he has the chance to win the one trophy that has eluded him. It’s a matter of 90, or maybe 120 minutes. And then what?

    The romantic would hope that, as he loses his speed, he retreats into a more constructive midfield role – breaking open defences with the through-balls that rely on the speed of others. With Luis Suarez and Neymar playing alongside him next season, there’s no doubt he’ll get a chance to test this role out, which is something that the club likely had in mind while buying the troubled Uruguayan.
    But former ‘greatest evers’ don’t always have it so easy, as Kaka can testify. Messi has also had remarkable luck (and a great team of doctors) when it comes to injuries. Last year’s hamstring tear was an outlier, but he has come back quickly enough, played a tough league season that went down to the wire and then gone all the way at the World Cup.

    Whichever way the final goes, when it ends, will Messi still be the world’s greatest player?
    We welcome your comments


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