The first goal, against Osasuna, was a header to the back post in the Copa del Rey. Numbers six and seven were solo runs down the gut against Malaga. The 22nd goal capped a record-setting day, but most aficionados would count the 18th and 20th goals, little chips over a helpless Bernd Leno, as the most memorable.
Sixty-nine goals later after that faithful Champions League night, for a grand total of 91 in the calendar year, Lionel Messi entered the record books once again. With few records left to smash, Messi blew past Gerd Muller’s 1972 total of 85 goals in a calendar year – to say nothing of Zico’s claim that he once scored 89 – to cap what has been a stupendous 2012.
Messi ends 2012 as FOX Soccer’s Player of the Year. Candidly, it wasn’t even close. The sheer weight of numbers and achievements, the sublime quality of his play and the fact that he is also the consensus best player on the planet in this era add up to one conclusion: Messi is now the greatest player of all time.
In his still-young tenure (Messi is 25), the little genius has won five league titles with Barcelona and is odds-on to win his sixth this coming spring. He is an Olympic gold medalist with Argentina and a three-time winner of the Champions League. He has won FIFA’s highest honor for the past three seasons and he is likely to win it again next month.
The only thing Messi has not won is a World Cup, and he may never. For some, that automatically disqualifies him for being mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Armando Maradona. This is curious considering that Cruyff – unquestionably one of the greats – also lacks a world title, but logic rarely comes into play when talking about soccer. The fact that Messi has taken one of the greatest teams of all time to unprecedented modern success is often overlooked by those who have fond, if hazy, memories of the glory days of Brazil’s “golden boys.”
As it happens, I have been privileged to see all four men play in my lifetime. I even played with Pele in my backyard as a kid, but that’s another story. And, if you’d asked me last year, I still would have given the nod to Pele. No more.
There’s no question that Pele was the most dominant physical player of his era, able to both create and score goals. He was nearly impossible to muscle off the ball and could do incredible things on it. But Messi’s gifts border on the indescribable. His manager, Tito Vilanova, is correct when he says it is better to watch Messi than to talk about him. His positioning is astute and despite looking fragile – which does keep him from making some of the kinds of plays Pele was able to, sheer bull-headed exhibitions of strength – Messi is rarely taken out of games. Teams have tried to kick him right off the pitch, only to discover he is both too nimble and too resilient to hobble.
The World Cup also no longer means much as a marker of true talent. Like it or not, the World Cup is a shadow of the Champions League in terms of talent, prestige and star power. The Champions League presents compelling, top-level play at every stage of the tournament. Anyone who watched the last two World Cups is going to have a difficult time arguing the same. The World Cup’s decline is an accident of history and a product of money – but it seems foolish to punish Messi for it.
Numbers off the scoreboard don’t mean a lot in soccer, but Messi’s remain eye-popping: He smashed La Liga’s scoring record last season finishing the 2011-12 campaign with 50. He also set the world record for most goals in a season with 73. He became the first man to score five goals in a Champions League game – those came against the aforementioned Leno in a 7-1 slaughter. He would finish his Champions League campaign with 14, equaling a long-standing mark set by Jose Altafini. Fittingly, he scored the capper against Altafini’s old side, Milan, to send Barcelona through to the Champions League semifinals and the Italians out.
Perhaps it is more fitting to follow Cruyff’s advice and note that each era crowns its own stars and mints its own heroes. But where’s the fun in that?