Thursday, 17 February 2011
Another Fine Messi
We are bombarded by images, from billboards and Sky Sports to You Tube via Facebook and back. It is this infiltration of the everyday by the image, maximised by the omnipotent presence of the internet, that takes away the most romantic notion of mystery. What was once mystery then takes the form of myth. Cardiff City fans telling you Robin Friday was the best player they ever saw (and you never saw). The delicious and possibly apocryphal anecdote from Roker Park, May 9 1973, centring on Stan Bowles being egged on by his teammates to knock the FA Cup off a trestle table by the side of the pitch, triggering chaos on Wearside. Alfredo Di Stefano amusing his Real Madrid teammates by juggling a bar of soap in the changing room.
Seeing the Brazil side of 1970 live on TV would, to paraphrase Andy Townsend, have been “literally mind-blowing” at the time. That dummy of Pele’s against Uruguay. The sublime build up to Carlos Alberto’s goal in the final. But football then wasn’t as widely or instantly accessible – the saturation was only just starting. The proliferation of today’s mass communication, by contrast, means that moments of genius are not mysterious anymore – unlike those conjured up by Pele, Di Stefano and, to a certain extent, Diego Maradona. It’s all there before us, analysed to within an inch of its life and we’re taking it for granted. In particular, this applies to Lionel Messi.
In England, typically sensationalised responses to a few excellent games at the start of the season see Gareth Bale compared to Messi. Don’t get me wrong, Bale is an excellent, typically British player, but the comparison is absurd. He probably hasn’t even been the best performer at his club this season. Maicon might have needed a taxi that night at White Hart Lane, but if that’s the case Messi has been keeping the cabbies of Barcelona in business for years.
Messi is in fact criminally underrated. Over the past three years he has played at a more consistently brilliant level (with no slump) than Maradona or Pele – in a league high on technical quality. His highlights reel is phenomenal. Every time Barcelona play he does half a dozen amazing things that no-one else on the pitch can do. And it’s not for show (I’m looking at you Mr Ronaldo). The artistry isn’t drawn from some selection box of tricks. Messi never ‘tries something out’ on a hapless full back. His brilliance is instinctive, and it’s just how he plays football.
At 23, he already deserves to be included in the same bracket as Pele, Maradona and Di Stefano. An argument that used to be trotted out on comments sections of Messi articles in this country as a matter of course is that he doesn’t turn up in the big games. Big games being solely those against English opposition I presume? Four goals against Arsenal? A goal against United in the Champions League final? Come on.
I wasn’t going to trot out a load of facts Sid Lowe-style but I find it irresistible. Sorry, but here goes: last season, Messi scored 47 in 53. This season, he has a staggering 40 in 34. His assist against Arsenal was his TWENTIETH of the season. But Messi is about much more than this. He tracks back. He scraps for it. He completes a phenomenal amount of passes. He drops deep and is constantly involved in Barcelona’s play. And he is a team player. Much more so than his most lauded peer in world football right now, Cristiano Ronaldo. Much more so than Pele or Maradona ever did. He marries the individual with team beautifully. That he plays in the one of the greatest club sides of all time does not diminish his talents; it enhances them. Having Messi in this Barcelona side is like having 10 24-carat gold cogs that work in supreme harmony, with the koh-i-noor diamond at its centre. To highlight this, look no further than last night’s game. Messi made 71 passes during the game. He completed, you guessed it, 71. That the debate has shifted to talk of him being the best in the world now to being the best EVER is testament to the consistent level of genius the Argentine operates on.
Back to the underrated bit. I have no qualms with a Manchester United fan, for instance, saying Duncan Edwards was set to be the greatest player ever when the air crash at Munich cruelly took the lives of him and many of his teammates. Or a Milan season ticket holder from the 60s and 70s saying Gianni Rivera was the best ever. Likewise, an even older Blackpool fan regaling tales of Stanley Matthews beating five men. Or a 70-year-old Benfica fan swearing blind he has never seen a better player than Eusebio. After all, opinion is subjective and none more so than when sports fans discuss favourite players.
The beauty of the footballing opinion forged pre-digital age is that it can never be disproved. It is therefore easy for Di Stefano to retain a place in the footballing canon because there is so little footage of him available, compared with an unbridled number of glowing testimonials. Further to this, the size of the kudos comes with the authority of the endorsement. So when Pele says Di Stefano was the best player ever, people sit up and listen. Incidentally, this is a view the eminent South American journalist Enrique Macaya Marquez shares.
Claiming you once bought the greatest and most delicious and shiniest apple ever is all well and good when the only evidence is anecdotal. If 50 of your mates saw the apple and concur then the anecdote grows in stature and eventually, with embellishment, there is little doubt that you did indeed once have the best apple of all time, taking pride of place in your fruit bowl.
But metaphorically, when does an onion become an apple? Watching this is unquestionably a more authoritative voice on Messi’s claims to greatness than say, hearing a 1950s regular at the Bernabeu wax lyrical about Di Stefano or Ferenc Puskas. I am not calling into question anybody’s integrity here but everyone is prone to exaggeration, an exaggeration that only imbeds and grows with time. Delving into the past to understand the present is nothing new though. And football fans are ever guilty of this. Every player is compared to a version that came before. In this way, Messi is the new Maradona.
The lack of international success is Messi’s only downside to date. But then, Di Stefano didn’t have any either. If you look back at the last World Cup, Messi did some amazing things in the first two group games – even though he was deployed too deep, perhaps the reason he did almost everything except score. But then again, tactically, Maradona couldn’t tell his arse from his elbow and Messi was too often left isolated. In 2014, in Brazil, he’ll be 27 and – if he manages to escape the bad challenges – at his peak. But he might have eclipsed the greats by then anyway. That we have come to expect brilliance – and did so throughout the World Cup, a particularly incongruous tournament for a player entrenched in the Barcelona family since he was 14 – is obviously the mark of the player he’s become. The greatest player ever: a futile discussion, I know, but one we all enjoy having regardless.