Last week, Lionel Messi broke Barcelona’s all time goalscoring record. At just 24 years-old, the little master from Rosario is conquering football like no one has before.
There’s little doubt that he is the world’s greatest football player. But arguments on whether he is the best ever can last well into the night as football tragics compare him to the greats of the past: Maradona, Pele, Cruyff, Di Stefano, etc.
I’m only old enough to recall Maradona’s playing days, but I have watched plenty of old matches featuring other contenders for football’s greatest throne. To me, there is no debate - Messi is king.
I do believe that all these great footballers are geniuses. The circuits in their brains connect far quicker than that of mere mortals, which is why they can anticipate and react before anyone else has had time to calculate just what happened.
As Simon Kuper points out for Mio Stadium, “the little man (Messi) has such quick reflexes that he sometimes wins a tackle a split-second after losing one”.
But this gift alone is not enough to reach the pinnacle of the beautiful game. In fact, scientific studies have shown it takes 10,000 hours of practice for a genius to realise his or her potential.
This is what sets Messi apart from those that have come before. The Argentine genius honed his skill at the best football school in the world – La Masia.
The then-teenager’s move to Barcelona almost didn’t happen, but Charly Rexach’s now famous napkin changed history.
While there was no doubting Messi’s technical and mental abilities, his lack of stature and susceptibility to injury were a concern to the club.
In fact, a different youth system may have given up on the world’s greatest player altogether.
But Barca was the perfect club for this type of player and the Catalans had learnt from mistakes they made with another Argentine genius.
Diego Maradona made an expensive move to the Nou Camp in 1982, but he never fulfilled his potential in Spain.
Off field issues, as well as injuries, hindered the then 22-year-old’s development.
It was only after his unforgettable performances for Napoli and Argentina that Barcelona perhaps realised that like all of us, footballers will only reach their potential if they are healthy and happy.
Today Messi is both. He’s surrounded by friends and family from his hometown of Rosario. A few years ago when he was struck down by injury, the club was patient and understood he needed a rest.
Now it is reaping the rewards as Messi continues to break records and sets the football world alight with consistently outstanding performances.
Some suggest that Barcelona’s record scorer has an advantage because there is now more television exposure than when the other “greatest” contenders were playing.
But I see this as another reason why Messi is in fact the greatest.
Football today is quicker, more physically demanding with teams more tactically savvy than ever before.
There is less space and time for players to manoeuvre with the ball. So for someone to produce what Messi does week in-week out is a sign that they are doing things nobody has ever achieved.
A popular argument as to why the throne cannot be handed to the Argentine wizard – is Argentina's record at recent World Cups.
So often we hear that “unless Messi wins the World Cup” he cannot be considered the greatest.
I don’t buy it for a moment.
The reason football fans used to wait to see how a player performed at a World Cup before judging his greatness, was because that used to be the pinnacle of world football.
It is not the case today.
The World Cup in South Africa demonstrated that the highest level of football nowadays is played in the UEFA Champions League. In that competition, few can deny that Messi has excelled beyond all other players.
So for me, this latest football genius is the greatest of all. But that doesn’t mean that the next genius won’t be better.
In fact, it’s logical to conclude that footballers will continue to evolve. Just like the 100 metres sprint record continues to be broken.
In the end, the debates will continue and I for one enjoy reminiscing as we discuss each players’ merits.
But the most important thing we can do now is to just watch and enjoy football’s latest genius at work.
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Fondly known as 'Mr Football', Les has been directly involved in all
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