EL PULGA

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“To compare anyone with Lionel Messi is unfair on them.”     

Xavi Hernandez

They call him the greatest player of all time. To quantify that is difficult, especially since if you are a football fan from my generation, that assertion has a huge bias towards it. Bias in the sense that bar Zinedine Zidane or Ronaldinho Gaucho, you have probably never seen the other players to have ever been given the tag ‘greatest player of all time.’ I refer to Pele, Diego Maradona and Johann Cruijff.

But even so, it is not my part to blame you. Yes, you were born in a different generation, and yes, you may have seen re-runs of that famous Maradona goal in Mexico 1986, or of the brilliance of Pele in World Cups past. But the truth is, nothing beats seeing something special for the first time. Nothing.

I say this because I have witnessed some truly special footballing moments for the first time, thanks to the power of live television. Nothing beats seeing Henri Camara score a golden goal against Sweden in the second round of a World Cup. Or Ronaldinho do a merry dance on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area only to somehow, with no back lift whatsoever, place the ball past a stunned Petr Cech. Watching it for the first time makes it all the more memorable. That is why I understand why, at the moment, Lionel Messi is being hailed as the greatest. Because we witness his magic week in week out. For the first time.

But what is it that makes ‘El Pulga’ (the Flea) that special. Is it his ability to seemingly pick up the ball from anywhere on the pitch and do as he pleases with it? Or is it his astronomical goal scoring tally. Whatever it is, everyone has his own opinion as to why they consider the Argentine a magician.

As for me, the thing that makes Messi that great, is his ability to seemingly turn a game on its head.

A discussion with a friend of mine brought me to this conclusion. My friend, whose footballing opinion I hold in high regard, told me what it is that makes Messi such a special player for FC Barcelona. “Messi,” he said, “is the difference between; a loss and a draw; a draw and a win; and, a win and a huge win.” In one sentence, he’d summed up Lionel Messi. FC Barcelona, no matter how good they are, do fall on hard times from time to time. There will always be that team that will park the bus in front of goal, making it difficult for Barca to score. And there will be that one team that has luckily found the beating of Barcelona, and are hanging on to dear life to see out the result. Other times, a manager (read Jose Mourinho) totally outthinks Pep Guardiola. In all these circumstances, when nothing seems to be going right for Barca, Lionel Andres Messi steps up.

However, a clear examination of this argument proves inconclusive as to Messi’s greatness. This argument, may from time to time, apply to various other footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovich are a few that come to mind. They too can prove the difference; between a loss and a draw; a draw and a win; and (though rarely) a win and a huge win. If that is the case, then Messi is on the same level as CR7, RVP, Wazza and Ibra. Surely such a travesty of thought should not be entertained in our minds.

And it won’t. Because Messi has something else. Something more unique that sets him apart from other footbllers of his generation.

Messi can be the difference between a loss and a win.

Being the difference between a loss and a win is rarely a trait found in individuals. With football being a team sport, it requires a great amount of team effort to turn a loss into a win. That is why comebacks are rarely attributed to individuals, rather to teams. In the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final, Manchester United came back from a goal down to win 2-1 in the dying minutes. Though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is credited with firing in the winner, the comeback as a whole is attributed to United’s fighting spirit. Such was the team effort acknowledged that nobody remembers that United played that final without their two first choice midfielders (Paul Scholes and Roy Keane were suspended). In Istanbul 2005, Steven Gerrard is credited with the comeback. But when you look at it closely, the comeback wasn’t actually from a loss to a win, it was from a loss (3-0) to a draw (3-3), a draw that gave them the platform to go on and win on penalties. Individuals don’t produce comebacks, teams do.

And that is why Messi is so special. He can produce a comeback all on his own.

Now to be really considered great, you have to produce something special on the grand stage. For Maradona, his greatness was forever immortalised when he produced a comeback, on his own, at the World Cup in 1986. In the quarters against England, and with Argentina trailing, Maradona took matters into his own hands (quite literally for the equalizing ‘Hand of god’ goal) and then produced moment of magic for the second. At the time, the grandest stage was the World Cup.

But that was then. Though most may not agree, the grandest stage in football is no longer the World Cup. Club football has overtaken international football, making the World Cup’s only prestige being the rarity at which it occurs (once every four years). Such is the influence of club football that tactical changes in the game are no longer stemming from the World Cup, but from club competitions e.g. the UEFA Champions League.  (This I shall discuss in a future article)***

So, with club football being the preset of the grand stage, Messi’s influence in club games makes him eligible for the title ‘greatest of all time.’

Continually we hear of arguments that Messi will never be a legend until he produces at the World Cup. But while the proposers of such an argument wait for him to produce at the World Cup, Messi continues to produce where it truly matters. At club level.

And for Messi, no grander stage befalls him than El Clasico. And it was at the last installment of the league clasico that I got convinced that I was truly lucky to be watching a player of Messi’s capabilities.

El Clasico had barely started. Twenty-three seconds in, Karim Benzema had scored. Barca looked shell-shocked. Nothing was working, not their patient passing nor their telepathic movement. Real Madrid on the other hand had all the answers to the questions. But on the half hour mark, Lionel Messi changed the questions. He received the ball in the middle of the park and went on a slalom. A lonely Blaugrana jersey weaving around a maze of snow white shirts. Then at the moment when Pepe got close enough to tackle, Messi released the ball. But it wasn’t just an aimless ball. It was a through pass to Alexis Sanchez.  Alexis shot past Iker Caillas. 1-1 the scoreline. Despite all of Madrid’s hard work, they were back to square one.

But it wasn’t really square one. It was ground zero, with Barca gaining a huge psychological advantage. They went on to win 3-1 with Messi again instrumental for the third goal. Were it not for Messi, Barca would have lost that match. But Messi proved the difference. He turned the loss into a win. He reduced all of Mourinho’s thinking, and all of Real Madrid’s hard work to nothing.

Lionel Messi is truly special. And its with moments like those that he shows it. Once in a while, a person is born into a generation where he is clearly the superior being. We’ve had Alexander the Great, William Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In football, we’ve had Pele, Gerd Muller, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruijff and Zinedine Zidane. Now we have Lionel Andres Messi. The Flea that continually disturbs the critics who dare say he needs to produce on the international scene. The humble man, who never shows off for the cameras, yet somehow still does what he wants, when he wants, when on the pitch. The artist, whose canvas is the football turf, and whose paintbrush is his left foot, masterly stroke with every shimmy and dummy, and every movement of the ball, which in essence becomes his paint. A real life Harry Potter, who has discovered that the game of quidditch is so easy.

A living legend.

The greatest footballer of all time.

*** {The Champions League has heavily influenced how international football is played. The 2003 and 2004 Champions Leagues were won by AC Milan and FC Porto respectively. These were highly structured and defensive minded teams. That led to Euro 2004 being won by Greece – a highly structured and defensive minded team. The 2006 World Cup was also won by such a team in the form of Italy. But by then, structure and defence were on the decline with the glimpse of an FC Barcelona vs. Arsenal final in the 2006 Champions League Final. In 2007, a Kaka-led attacking AC Milan became kings of Europe, and in 2009, it was a fluid, sometimes strikerless Manchester United. This gave way to an attacking Spain claiming Euro 2008, and from this pretext, FC Barcelona, attacking, fluid and sometimes strikerless (false 9) began its rise. But this philosophy had a stop-gap when Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan defeated Barcelona en route to the 2010 Champions League. It thus meant that some lost faith in the attacking philosophy and went back to structure and defence. That is why the 2010 World Cup was so defensive. Spain won their games 1-0 because teams set themselves up like Mourinho’s Inter in a bid to defeat them. Ridiculously attacking teams such as Brazil and Argentina suffered when they came up against highly organised teams, such as Holland and Germany. Spain, Holland and Germany were successful because they could fuse between Mourinho’s organization and Barcelona’s attack mindedness.

Hopefully, Barcelona win the 2012 Champions League, and we have an attacking and enjoyable Euro 2012.}

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