As much as Lionel Messi is the world’s greatest player — and maybe the best ever — he is an aesthetic wonder.
“He is,” said four-time Champions League medal winner Clarence Seedorf, “beautiful to watch.”
And that, in essence, is why even those who don’t have much interest in soccer still stop to marvel at the little Argentine master as if he were the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Jimi Hendrix riffing "Little Wing."
At just 23, the genius they fondly call "The Flea" transcends his sport like few have before him and, even more impressively, weaves his magic on the biggest of stages.
And, at club level, there’s no stage bigger than Wembley Stadium. That’s where Messi will lead Barcelona against Manchester United on Saturday with the Champions League title at stake (2 p.m. ET, FOX).
Though there are dangerous players in both starting elevens, the real difference between the teams is that only Barca has Messi.
"Messi or Rooney?” pondered Inter Milan striker Samuel Eto’o – who played with Messi at Barca – when comparing Messi to United’s star, Wayne Rooney. “Rooney is a champion, but Messi is god.”
Eric Abidal, Messi’s French teammate, said that “the difference with Leo is that no one knows what he will do.”
“He is from another planet,” Abidal said, “He can do anything. He’s proved that, despite his age.”
The Argentine wonder certainly has proven it this season — his best — by netting an astonishing 52 goals total in all competitions.
Astonishing because he’s diminutive — standing just 5-feet-7 — and not really a striker in the traditional sense. Yet if he finds the back of the net Saturday, Messi will have equaled Manchester United great Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of 12 goals in a single Champions League campaign.
What sets Messi apart, certainly from the pampered stars of the modern game — think: Cristiano Ronaldo — is that he’s just not motivated by individual honors.
“Goals are only important if they win you games,” Messi said this week.
“If I don’t score and Barcelona win the Champions League, it’s unimportant whether I find the net or not.
“My interest is in the collective success of the team, not individual glory. I’ve not given any great deal of thought about not scoring in England.
“And I’m not driven by the desire to score more goals in a Champions League campaign than any other player.
“If it’s meant to happen, it will happen.”
Apparently, many great things have been meant to happen for him since he arrived in Spain as a tiny, fragile teenager from Argentina.
From a blue-collar family in Rosario — his father worked in a factory, his mother cleaned houses part-time — the young Messi was diagnosed with a growth-hormone deficiency.
His parents couldn’t afford the $900 a month needed for his treatment. After being impressed with his skills, however, Barcelona offered to pick up the costs if he’d move to Spain.
It may sound like serendipity, but it didn’t always look like a fairy-tale ending.
The young Messi was terribly homesick in the beginning, crying himself to sleep at night. He was so quiet and kept to himself so much that some of his teammates at Barcelona’s legendary youth academy, La Masia, thought he may have been a mute.
What was clear even then was that he could play. Even though he was only 4-7 then, no one could rob him of the ball.
Coaches asked other players not to put any hard tackles on Messi because he was so brittle, but that wasn‘t a problem because no one ever could catch him to tackle him.
Eventually, Messi settled in, grew with the help of hormone treatments — though the thought of all those injections into his legs still make him shudder — and by the age of 16 made his debut in Barca’s first team.
As he has refined his game — based, as it’s always been, on a low center of gravity, which gives him a freakish ability to stay balanced — Messi has combined the elusiveness of a Barry Sanders with the timing of a Wayne Gretzky and, now, the killer instinct of a Michael Jordan.
Those attributes were never more obvious than in first leg of the Champions League semifinal against Barca’s great rival, Real Madrid, when Messi found himself in the right place at the right time to tuck in Barca’s first goal. Then he weaved his way past the entire Madrid backline to score a breathtaking second.
What hasn’t changed, however, is his demeanor. Many who have seen him at close range say what sets him apart is that he’s impossibly humble and unpretentious.
“He turns up in his tracksuit every day,” former teammate Eidur Gudjohnsen said. “He is not into the whole fashion thing.”
"He is so normal and natural, and if he walked into any restaurant or bar now and you didn’t follow football, you would say, ‘There’s a young guy in his tracksuit.’
“He is very modest, even though he can’t walk the streets. He lives outside the city and is very close to his family.
“He always has his mom, dad, brothers and sisters around his house.
“When you see him at lunch, it is usually with a lot of his family. I think he used to go home and play PlayStation all the time.”
What also sets Messi apart, Gudjohnsen said, is his passion for playing.
"The fact that he is so in love with the game is what makes him the player and the person he is,” Gudjohnsen said.
The player he is, according to some, may be the greatest of all time.
He’s most often compared with his compatriot, another left-sided, diminutive superstar, Diego Maradona.
"I think there is only one player you can compare with Messi, and that is Maradona," said another Argentine legend, Ossie Ardiles.
"In many ways they are very similar. For some time, I thought that Diego could never be surpassed — and nor could Pele — but no longer.
"I would now say that Lionel Messi will go down in history as the No. 1 player of all time, the best that there ever was.
"The big difference is that Maradona played in Argentina, then in Italy, while Pele stayed in Brazil, and during their time the pressures were less intense than they are now.
"Messi is under pressure all the time, and has to play in incredibly high-intensity games all of the time, the Champions League being the perfect example."
Arsene Wenger, the urbane Frenchman who has turned Arsenal into one of the world’s premier clubs, paid Messi the ultimate compliment after Barca again ended the Gunners’ Champions League campaign this year.
"Once he’s on the run, Messi is unstoppable,” he said.
“He’s the only player who can change direction at such a pace. He is the best player in the world by some distance. He’s (like) a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make.”
Messi’s manager, Pep Guardiola, has run out of words to describe his talisman.
“Put in the superlatives yourselves. I’m running out. It’s already been a while now that he has been outstanding.
“That he’s capable of doing everything that he does at his age is something impressive that doesn’t make any sense.
“The best players are always in the thick of the action. (Michael) Jordan did it with the Bulls, (Kobe) Bryant does it with the Lakers and Leo does it here. We want him to stay with us because he’s the best.
“We wouldn’t swap him for anyone.”
Not that they will have to, because Messi is also very loyal. He’s not motivated by the big-money offers from nouveau riche clubs like Manchester City.
“My future is here, in Barcelona,” he said.
“Barcelona is my life. They have brought me to where I am today. I could not leave. I don’t want to leave.
“I know the (English) Premier League is very good. But I cannot see myself playing in England because my heart is with Barcelona, always.”