Why you should care
Because the best player of the world’s most popular sport deserves a little of your time.
Lionel Messi did not have a single goal or assist in Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Juventus in the Champions League Final earlier this month. But the 27-year-old soccer star was behind each of Barca’s scores and more, his lurking presence on the field just as real, and potent, as gravity. And this particular sporting force, as those attempting to operate within his orbit can testify, is one that tends to suck in defenders and bend the fabric of space and time, including the ball, toward one ineluctable point in the universe: the goal.
The most recent indication of Messi’s magnetism is a fourth title in Europe’s Champions League, a competition regarded by some as “the highest expression of the sport,” of greater import than even the World Cup. It’s a trophy the Argentine striker can add to his four FIFA World Player of the Year awards and a pile of other hardware, including seven La Liga titles and a 2008 Olympic gold medal. And despite his own lack of mass — Messi, nicknamed “the Flea,” stands just 5-foot-7 (1.70 m) — there is such an inescapable gravity to No. 10’s play that soccer commentators, like the sporting world’s cosmologists, are often left grasping for the words and data to describe the marvelous phenomenon they have encountered.
First there is Messi’s speed and remarkable ability to move with the ball. It often looks like he runs faster with the ball, seemingly attached to his feet, than pursuing defenders run without it. Daniel Edwards, a freelance journalist who covers South American soccer from Buenos Aires, cites Messi’s low center of gravity and “dizzying balance” as an almost unbeatable edge. “With that principal weapon,” Edwards says, “Messi has license to do whatever he wishes on the football pitch.”
His speed and ball control, combined with uncanny field vision and precision shooting, have produced countless one-man scoring runs. Perhaps the most famous came against Getafe in April 2007 when, at just 19 years old, Messi scored after a 12-second run over 60 meters in which he evaded five opposing players — a goal instantly compared to countryman Diego Maradona’s epic run in the 1986 World Cup. But Messi’s seeming omniscience on the field does not begin when he gets the ball. As anyone who has ever tried to prevent a horde of 7-year-olds from swarming the ball knows, spacing is critical in soccer. And Messi’s most impressive skill, says Karl Matchett, a World Football analyst and freelance columnist for Bleacher Report, “is just his appreciation of space: where to find it, when to go into it and how to exploit it.”
A recent analysis by Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight confirms these skills and more. Messi’s ability to evade defenders not only creates unassisted shots and other scoring opportunities for himself but also makes him, along with a high pass completion rate, one of the top assist-givers in the game. Oh, and when it comes to scoring, Messi scores at about the same rate from outside the penalty area as other players score from within it.
Messi’s dominance has not always been so clear. As recently as last year — after Argentina’s disappointing defeat in the World Cup final and a difficult season in Barcelona in which he didn’t play like himself — many worried the bright young star was burning out. But it was not the first time Messi had been written off. Born in Rosario, the birthplace of Che Guevara, the shy, frail boy, who would be diagnosed with a growth-hormone deficiency requiring daily injections, was once considered too small to be a serious player. But Leo was a natural. For his fourth birthday, as Luca Caioli recounts in Messi: The Inside Story of the Boy Who Became a Legend, Messi received his first ball, and shortly thereafter joined his father and older brothers in the street for a game. His steelworker father, Jorge, later recalled being astounded at what his son could do. “He had never played before.”
At age 13, Leo and his father moved to Spain to pursue his career at FC Barcelona, the youth academy, in what he tells Caioli was the most challenging period of his life. “I left my hometown, my friends, my people… . I used to cry alone in my house so that my father wouldn’t see.” But the inner resilience Messi built up in the process has seen him through a number of challenges in a highly scrutinized career in which he has been accused of everything from being too selfish and too injury-prone to not being Argentine enough. And it’s true that early in his career Messi appeared to focus more on his own playmaking than his team’s collective success. (A representative of FC Barcelona said Messi was unavailable for comment.) But he has now realized that a player of his caliber, says Francesc Tomas, the founder of Barcablog.com and a freelance columnist for ESPN, “can only reach legendary status by leading his teammates to glory.”
Messi has worked hard to correct other weaknesses, improving his play with his head and his right foot and committing to a harsh diet and training regimen that has greatly reduced injury. “Perhaps his greatest strength,” says Edwards, “is the identification of those weaknesses and turning them back into strengths.”
There is still at least one gaping hole on Messi’s résumé, one that in many fans’ eyes, will keep him from reaching the ranks of the immortals like Maradona and Pelé: his lack of a World Cup title. But there is time, and space, for that still. In the meantime, it looks like Messi will remain a force that opponents, commentators and fans across the soccer universe will have to reckon with for quite a while.