from the New York Times
Messi’s Brilliance Transcends His Numbers
By JERÉ LONGMAN
It was Pep Guardiola, the former manager of Barcelona, who once suggested that Lionel Messi should be observed instead of dissected. He is, after all, widely considered the world’s greatest soccer player, not a biology project.
“Don’t try to write about him,” Guardiola said. “Don’t try to describe him. Watch him.”
Last Sunday, Messi set an international record by scoring his 86th goal in a calendar year, for both Barcelona and the Argentine national team, delivering an average of one goal every four days, more frequently than a starting pitcher takes the mound, as often as Starbucks opens a new store in China.
But Messi is best appreciated, Guardiola admonished, in the virtuosity of the moment, not against the backdrop of history and statistics. Soccer, like figure skating, demands art as much as sport. This is not baseball, where numbers mean so much that they seem to carry a moral weight. Soccer’s beauty is that it surpasses mathematics, or, in Barcelona’s case, conjures a sublime human geometry of triangular passing and movement.
International soccer is generally played from late summer, through the winter, and into late spring, the schedule defined by seasons, not by calendar years. So this record of 86 goals is an artificial construct, a figure that celebrates Messi but also reduces his achievement to mere quantity. It is inadequate to say that he has scored 75 times with his left foot in 2012, 8 times with his right foot and 3 times with his head. Or that when he has scored in a Spanish league match since August, it has never been a single goal but always two or more. Such dry accounting pins him like a butterfly to Styrofoam, relegates his greatness to taxidermy.
As Guardiola said, Messi, at age 25, must be watched to be fully appreciated. To be wholly valued for his vision and anticipation and enthusiasm and ruthlessness and humility. For the way he chips a shot over a goalkeeper as if his foot were a sand wedge. For the way he dribbles in tight spaces, the ball bound to him like an electron bound to an atom.
The goals must be seen, and just as important, they must also be heard. For it is the excitable voices of the announcers that best convey Messi’s triumph over the parsimony of soccer. It surrenders so few goals to most others and so many to him. Only one response is appropriate, “Gooooooooooooal,” a prolonged, shrieking exhalation that takes the breath away.
On Sunday, Messi received a no-look, back-heel pass from Barcelona teammate Andrés Iniesta and angled a hard, diving shot across the mouth of the goal, inside the far post, to break the record of 85 goals scored in 1972 by Gerd Müller of Bayern Munich and West Germany. Messi’s verbal biographer, the English announcer Ray Hudson, erupted with his usual bombastic poetry, mixing his metaphors but not his uninhibited celebratory intent.
“Lionel Messi rewrites the history book!” Hudson said, screaming. “And we were all there to witness it, to be privileged by this artisan! He does it in his own inimitable, brilliant way, Messi twisting, turning, like an alligator with a twitch, beautiful give and go! He takes a million pictures in that crystal ball that’s inside of his head! Beautiful from Iniesta, laying it on for the golden honor for this golden footballer, the most wonderful, stupendously magnificent, player in the history of the game! And he’s only getting better.”
Anyone with 10 ½ minutes to spare can watch all 86 goals compressed and shelved in a video library on YouTube. The Web site goal.com has annotated each goal, date and manner of scoring. What these compilations do not directly show is that Messi has complemented his scoring with 29 assists. And that he has great stamina, preferring to play from beginning to end without substitution. But the goals are there. And they have often come in clusters, like grapes.
His first two goals of the year came in a Copa del Rey match on Jan. 4. After sitting on the bench with flulike symptoms, Messi entered in the 60th minute for Barcelona. He scored twice, first on a stabbing header and then on a bending shot that left the Osasuna goalkeeper pounding his fists into the turf.
The videos demonstrate Messi’s predatory confidence on penalty kicks, the sweeping power of his lesser-used right foot, the punching accuracy of his rare headers. And his decorous manner. Seventy-four of his goals have come inside the penalty area, but absent is the diving that often turns European soccer into a deceitful ballet.
Messi is the world’s most prolific scorer, maybe the world’s most famous athlete, but he remains smaller than life, not larger than life, nicknamed the Flea, having needed injections of growth hormone to reach 5 feet 7 inches. His celebrations are demure, no jersey-waving or dancing with the corner flag. What draws the eye to him after a goal is that he is mostly restrained while many around him, on the field and in the stands, are running and jumping and waving wildly.
No doubt this calm aids him in pressured moments. On Feb. 26, with Barcelona tied, 1-1, against Atlético Madrid in the 81st minute, Messi curled a free kick from 25 yards with impeccable accuracy and clever timing. The opposing goalkeeper stood with his arms outstretched, baffled, incredulous. In another setting, he might have been a boy who had just seen a birthday magician pull a quarter from his ear.
On March 7, Messi had a day that no one had ever had in the Champions League, Europe’s premier club tournament, scoring five times for Barcelona in a 7-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen of Germany. Twice, Messi lobbed shots over the head of goalkeeper Bernd Leno. A third time, he tapped in a rebound that had deflected off Leno’s hands. Two more of Messi’s shots were driven inside the left post on a day when Leno could do little more than hop and roll as if trying to smother an invisible fire.
“Messi is a joke. For me the best ever,” Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United and England star, wrote on Twitter.
On June 9, before an exhibition crowd of 81,994 at MetLife Stadium, Messi delivered a hat trick as Argentina subdued its rival Brazil, 4-3. He scored the game-winner in the 85th minute, driving at the defense and curling a shot inside the left post from 22 yards, leaving Rafael Cabral, the defeated Brazilian goalkeeper, on his knees as if searching for a lost contact lens.
“Leo is supernatural,” Gerard Piqué, Messi’s Barcelona teammate, would tell the Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo, after Messi broke the scoring record on Sunday. “He has no limits and we always have to remember everything that he’s given us. We have to enjoy him every single minute that we have him now.”
It is a brilliance that can be as fragile as it is rare. On Nov. 11, Messi scored twice for Barcelona, surpassing the 75 goals that Pelé of Brazil scored in 1958. Then, last Wednesday, as Messi drew within one goal of Müller’s record, he collided with goalkeeper Artur Moraes in a scoreless Champions League match against Benfica of Portugal. His left knee in pain, Messi shot weakly, saying, “I thought it might be the last time I kicked a ball in a long time.”
Messi left the field on a stretcher and the crowd at Barcelona’s stadium, Camp Nou, grew silent. Alarmed headlines spread around the globe. But it was only a bruise, and Messi returned to Barcelona’s lineup Sunday for the two record-breaking goals against Real Betis. Team victory meant more than an individual record, Messi said, but with four games remaining this year, he continued, “I hope to add more to it so that it is harder for the next person to break.”
Despite the record, some will find Messi deficient because he has never won soccer’s ultimate prize, the World Cup, as did Pelé and Messi’s countryman, Diego Maradona. But Johan Cruyff, the former Dutch great, wrote during the 2010 World Cup that soccer devotees should be satisfied that each era has its heroes, none of whom should be considered lesser than the other.