It was an iconic Messi moment. He scored the winning goal in a 3-2 return-leg El Clasico Barcelona victory at Santiago Bernabeu and ran towards Real Madrid home fans. He took off his shirt, pointed it towards the sky and signalled a cross across his body. Lionel Messi—‘The Redeemer’! ‘GOAT’ (Greatest of All Time) became the buzzword on Twitter. Messi had earlier scored a goal in the match that epitomised individual brilliance. But the one he scored with the last kick of the game was his 500th for Barcelona. A lot more importantly, it decided the outcome of the battle royale. Barcelona came roaring back into the La Liga title race. And they badly needed the success following their Champions League quarterfinals ouster—a 3-0 defeat over two legs against Juventus.
Five-hundred goals in 577 matches for the one-club man. Cristiano Ronaldo has 518 goals in 710 appearances for Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United and Real Madrid combined. The Portuguese is a great player in his own right, but the little, big man from Rosario brings an aesthetic value to his game that had parallels only in Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona.
Pele scored 650 goals in his club career for Santos and New York Cosmos. He netted 77 times for Brazil. He held aloft the World Cup thrice. Cruyff scored 290 goals for the clubs he played for and another 33 goals for Holland. He played the World Cup final, but didn’t win it. The late Dutch master was a revolutionary with his football and then his coaching. Maradona struck 259 times for his clubs and 34 times for his country. He led Argentina to World Cup triumph in 1986 and made unfancied Napoli Italian and European champions.
Messi hasn’t yet won a major trophy for Argentina. He has lost three Copa America finals and the 2014 World Cup final against Germany. Does this change anything? No way! Footballers are judged by their club careers. Alfredo Di Stefano and George Best never played in the World Cup finals. Excluding them from the list of all-time greats would be moronic. It would be wrong to compare different eras. Also, it’s foolish to compare the greats. As for Messi, safe to say, he is someone who honours modern football.
“Newton and Einstein had a certain level of autism. I hope that like them, Messi surpasses himself everyday and continues to give us his beautiful brand of football,” Brazilian great Romario once said. Portugal legend Luis Figo described Messi’s football as orgasmic. “For me, to watch Messi play is a pleasure. It’s like having an orgasm; it’s an incredible pleasure.”
Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta and Messi grew up together at La Masia. Iniesta still gets mesmerised by his teammate. “The great thing about Leo is that he never stops surprising you. After so many years, he continues to be the difference. For us, it is an honour and a blessing for the club.” Greatness is not about the brand value or the number of commercials one is appearing for. True greatness is the respect of the dressing-room.
Daniel Passarella, Argentina’s 1982 World Cup captain and a world-class top centre-half or libero, never saw eye to eye with Maradona. The latter’s off-the-field antics and indiscipline became intolerable at times. Pele had issues with Garrincha. Let alone his football, Messi’s on- and off-the-pitch demeanour has remained impeccable. The unequivocal respect from his peers is well earned. Even after 13 years of top-flight football, Messi remains strong an
d hungry. And he is still only 29 years old. Even after four Ballon d’Ors and countless other awards, he stays humble to his sport.
What sums up Messi’s football? Balance, composure, grace, speed of thought, close control, passing, peripheral vision, selflessness, strength (you can kick him how many times you want, it won’t matter), acceleration and fitness. He is a complete package, an unrivalled genius. Sir Alex Ferguson once explained why he would choose Ronaldo over Messi. “Now don’t get me wrong, Messi is a
fantastic player; it’s like he is wearing slippers when he controls the ball. But here, for me, is the difference. Messi is a Barcelona player. “But Ronaldo could play for Stockport County and score a hat-trick. He has everything. He can shoot with both feet, head the ball, he is as brave as a lion, and here is something else people overlook.” The great Scot nurtured Ronaldo and maybe his fatherly love influenced his observations. Or, to put things in perspective, he spoke from a purely technical point of view. For common fans, Messi is football’s Picasso.