The man of the moment. The football world is at his feet.
By Sid Lowe
Man … Superman … Leo Messi
Barcelona’s talisman is so sensationally good at the moment that comparisons with football’s greatest players are wholly justified
It’s not big and it’s not clever but sometimes swearing is the only thing that will do. Sometimes you’ve used up every other word and nothing else quite hits the spot.
You’ve rummaged round the back of the sofa, rifled through the drawers, turned out your pockets and still come up empty.
Pep Guardiola insisted that he was clean out of adjectives and frankly so was everyone else. Spain was suffering a severe shortage of superlatives last night.
The Catalan newspaper Sport invited readers to send in headlines for what they had just witnessed and there were plenty of super, sensational and sublimes, some magic, magnificent and marvellouses, wows and wonderfuls, plus deities by the dozen, and even a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but still there was no way to really do it justice.
No polite way anyway. Just wide eyes, a wider mouth and a simple: holy shit!
What they had witnessed would have been one of the most brilliant performances imaginable from Leo Messi but for one thing: you would never have imagined it.
He was unbebloodylievable. The milk. The consecrated bread. The dog’s dingly-danglies.
It was a performance that started off well, got better in the middle, and by the end was barely believable. One that left you feeling exhausted just watching it, full of ridiculously good touches.
It got better and better and better and when you thought it couldn’t get any better it got better again. One that went from Crikey to Bloody Hell to Oh my God to Now, you’re really taking the mickey.
Only Messi wasn’t taking the mickey, he was just playing football – the way he plays football. The way no one else has played football. Maybe ever before.
“I’m not sure he’s human,” said the Zaragoza playmaker Ander Herrera of Messi’s display in their 4-2 defeat.
“Tonight, I saw Diego Maradona,” declared the Real Zaragoza coach José Aurelio Gay, “but at more revs per minute. There are no words left to describe him – he is interplanetary.
We could have beaten Barcelona but we could never have beaten Leo Messi. If we had scored four, he would have scored 12.”
He didn’t get 12, he got three. For his first trick, Messi headed Barcelona into the lead. For his second trick he won the ball near the halfway line, dashed through, the ball never leaving his foot, stepped round three challenges, left Matteo Contini on his backside, and hit a low shot into the net.
And for his hat-trick, he curled in a beauty from the edge of the area.
Then he produced a bit of barely plausible skill inside the Zaragoza penalty area, flicking over one man and stepping beyond another, before being pulled down for a penalty.
It would have been his fourth only he got up, dusted himself off and handed the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic instead. “Well,” Messi shrugged, “Zlatan needed it.”
He certainly did. If Messi has scored the unscoreable, the Swede, who had scored only once this year, had missed the unmissable. No wonder everyone went weak at the knees.
He’s a genius – and so generous too! He’d done the truly impossible – scored three and made Ibrahimovic score too.
He was, insisted Carles Ruipérez in La Vanguardia, “Unbelievable. Unrivalled. Unrepeatable. Spectacular. Marvellous. Wonderful. Genial. Incredible.
” “Messi is the God of football,” declared Sport. “Stratospheric. Magical. Divine. Generous. Extraordinary.
” “ET,” ran the headline inside, “was born in Rosario and plays in Barcelona.” “Brutal,” added El Mundo Deportivo. On the inside, they were recalling the famous Ronaldo goal against Compostela – one so insultingly good it had Bobby Robson pacing back and forth on the touchline, head in hands muttering: “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” and the Compostela players threatening to sue for damages. “Maradona + Ronaldo,” ran the equation “= Messi”.
El País called him “infinity”, while El Mundo reserved for him a “place amongst the greatest”.
Speaking of the greatest, even Marca, the newspaper who decided to ignore Messi’s brilliance against Stuttgart on Wednesday by splashing on the breaking news that Muhammad Ali is a legend, found a place for him on their cover.
Near the bottom, but on the cover nonetheless, with the headline “Super Messi”. “Maradona, here’s your son,” it said inside.
AS too gave Messi big billing – just above a Rafa van der Vaart explaining that just because he controlled the ball with his hands it doesn’t mean he handballed it. “Messi,” said the paper, “is from another world!”
All of which might seem a bit over the top for a hat-trick against the side that conceded six against Real Madrid and lie just three points above the relegation zone.
Late last night, on the ape-house shouting-fest that is Punto Pelota, Pedro Pablo San Martín turned on his fellow guests, accusing them of “popping Viagra”, shouting: “Stop going on about him all the time! It’s only Zaragoza!”
Only, it’s not. And that is the point. It’s not only Zaragoza, it’s everyone else too. It’s every game. For Barcelona, at least.
One of the incredible things about Messi is how rarely he disappoints. In fact, it’s tempting to conclude that he has made the ridiculous so routine that he doesn’t get talked about as much as deserves; playing perfectly is hardly news.
It was not just Zaragoza, it was the fact that Messi has now scored two La Liga hat-tricks in a row, after an astonishingly brilliant three against Valencia last week.
It was the fact that, until he handed the ball to Ibrahimovic, he had scored Barcelona’s last nine goals.
It was the display against Stuttgart that prompted Christian Gross to admit: “Comparing him to Maradona is perfectly licit now.”
It was the eight in a week. The 11 in five games. The free-kick against Almería – so subtle, so stupidly soft you wonder if he was wearing slippers. And playing with a balloon.
The 25 in the league already, the 34 in all competitions.
It’s not just the goals either. When it comes to the inevitable and often tedious comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the things that is often said about Messi is that he is not as complete.
Earlier this season the pro-Real Madrid newspaper Marca asked the man who had just published a glossy, club-sponsored biography of Ronaldo to do a comparison of Ronaldo and Messi in the midst of its campaign to beatify the Portuguese – and get pictures of him with his top off on their cover as often as possible.
Surprise, surprise, Ronaldo won. He scored higher than Messi in heading, speed, shooting, leadership, physical condition, and free-kicks and penalties, scoring the same in technique and passing.
It was not a new conclusion. In England too Ronaldo is invariably described as more complete than Messi – stronger, faster, bigger, more athletic.
But aren’t they all part of the same package, an obsession with physical strength? Isn’t that a pretty incomplete reading of complete? Last season Messi scored twice as many Champions League goals with half as many shots.
This season, Messi is the league’s top scorer with 10 more than Ronaldo, has provided more assists than anyone else (Ronaldo is not in the top 20) and has completed more passes than any other attacker. He hasn’t even taken any penalties.
Yes, they were acting like they were on Viagra. But, no, it wasn’t just Zaragoza. It is everything Messi has done throughout his career. The 79 goals in 129 games.
The two European Cups and three league titles. If he was not already the best player in the world in his first three seasons – 30 goals in 60 games – it’s because of injury. Every season, he missed at least 10 matches.
But when he played there were special moments. That unbelievable hat-trick against Real Madrid. That Getafe goal. The pair of destructions of Atlético Madrid. The naturalness with which he took over from Ronaldinho – every bit as much the messiah but not such a naughty boy.
You always felt he was just an injury-free season away from being the best. Last season he got it. Last season he got 38. The top scorer’s award in the Champions League. The goal in the Champions League final.
And the World Club Cup final.
And the two in what was effectively the league final – the historic 6-2 against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu, when he was described as “Maradona, Cruyff, and Best rolled into one”.
As well as the Copa sublime hat-trick that knocked Atlético out of the Cup and saw the Vicente Calderón hand him a standing ovation.
It is everything Messi has done and how he has done it. It is the sheer stupidness of his talent, the ohmygoddidyoujustseewhathedid? about him.
The fact that he gets hacked at and somehow keeps on running, that he’d be like a Weeble only he hardly ever even wobbles.
That the ball, to use the old cliché, really does seem to be tied to his feet.
He doesn’t even seem to kick it most of the time: like a faithful dog, it just runs alongside him. That he’s like the kid in the under-10s team that picks the ball up, runs rings round everyone and scores; that he is exactly the kid he was when he was a kid.
That he goes from 0-60 in no time and from 60-0 again in even less – what was so stunning about his goal against Valencia last weekend was how suddenly he stopped, sending the defender screeching by like a cartoon character off a cliff.
It is that last night his president Joan Laporta announced that Messi is the best player in Barcelona’s history – and it didn’t sound completely ridiculous.
Premature, yes. Exaggerated, probably. But not completely ridiculous.
Yes, Messi has more to win in order to prove it – although he has already won more than George Best ever did and more European Cups than Diego Maradona.
Yes, he still has to achieve things to make his case watertight, particularly with Argentina. But how could it be otherwise?
After all, for all the sublime touches, the goals, the assists and the win-it-on-his-own performances, perhaps the most ridiculous thing of all is that Leo Messi is still only 22.