Messi greatness shaped by modern world

Published Apr. 9, 2012 12:22 p.m. ET

Lionel Messi took another giant step toward history this past weekend, becoming the youngest man in nearly forty years to hit 60 goals in all competitions across an entire season.

Not since Gerd Muller in 1972-73 has anyone come close, and Muller’s record of 67 overall now appears in serious jeopardy.

The conversation all season has turned around whether or not Messi is the greatest player of all time, surpassing Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane. What’s not often noticed is that Messi has managed to do all this in a very different world than the past greats.

I saw Gerd Muller play in the 1974 World Cup — in an auditorium that usually hosted the local symphony orchestra. In that era, games were not on TV every weekend, and the internet was still being cooked up by DARPA. Most fans listened to games on shortwave radio, bought foreign papers or waited until the players came to them.

The 1974 World Cup was one of the very early closed-circuit soccer telecasts, and games were piped into Madison Square Garden and the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford. I was very young then, but I remember the dim colors of the ghosts on the screen through the cigarette smoke and the feeling that something important was happening a world away.

"Der Bomber" was the physical antithesis of Messi but he possessed the same deadly finish in front of goal that characterizes the Barcelona star. Instead of ghosting past defenders, Muller could bundle his way through, but his obvious strength — both on the ground and in the air — belied the fact that he was a clinical finisher with an ability to make something out of nothing.

Muller's best-known goal won West Germany the 1974 World Cup. He collected an innocuous pass without much space to work with, turned quickly and shot a low, decisive strike that was in the net before the global television audience probably knew he had scored.


And guess what? That goal never would have made a highlight reel in today's 24-7 media blitz. That’s what is so different about Messi today: his every move is examined, every goal parsed, every flick of his head seen around the world.

Like Messi, Muller had such a quick release that defenders were often beaten seemingly without knowing a shot was coming. And like the man who will likely break his scoring record, Muller had an appetite for the biggest of occasions, always eager for the responsibility that goes with being the man expected to decide matches. But no one outside Germany could see every important league game that Muller played in. His reputation was created by print, consigning him now to the dusty stacks.

I happened to see quite a bit of Pele. I also played kick-a-bout with him in my backyard when I was very young, when he was on the Cosmos. Prior to that, his Santos club had been a strong touring team, and they often came to the United States in the summer to collect fat paychecks from expats and fans of the South American game.

Pele was also different from Messi — he was stronger in the air, certainly more physical in his play, and able to muscle his way through difficulty in a manner that Messi does not. What the two shared is an ability to create both space and opportunities. Pele didn’t need help to find the net; he could conjure goals out of whole cloth and if his teammates weren’t on tune, then he could step into what seemed an entirely different reality.

Watching Pele as a kid was like meeting Superman, for real. Pele was someone who seemed more than human. He moved faster than your eye could follow and always seemed to be just at the corner of your vision. He had a dazzling smile and an unmatched charisma that seemed to signal that all of this was just fun — even as he was busy stabbing opponents left and right.

Pele had a halo effect, making men of questionable character and sportsmanship seem all right, and the fact that he today stands almost above the game itself is a testament to how great a figure he truly is.

But Pele was lucky. He came to the United States at a time when Americans were starting to develop a full-blown obsession with televised sport. His time with Cosmos is far better remembered around the world than his tenure with Santos or his debut at the 1958 World Cup — for the simple fact that more people saw it.

Would Pele be the patriarch of the modern sport had Steven Ross and Warner Brothers not given him such a platform on which to perform? It’s hard to argue that he would have.

Messi, in contrast, is showing his class on the world stage nearly every single day. There is no hiding behind the fizziness of shortwave radio, no eliding behind faded newsprint. What makes Messi great is that he seems to be able to handle the glare and the light.

Of course there is another similarity between Messi and the man whose record he seems destined to break: both Muller and Messi were fortunate to play with the best club sides of their era. While the 1970s' Ajax Amsterdam was arguably as good as Bayern - just as Real Madrid compares with Barcelona right now - it was Bayern that dominated the Bundesliga, fueled by Franz Beckenbauer's direction and built around a collection of midfield players who knew that their job was to find Muller in space.

Doesn’t that sound a bit familiar, Barcelona fans?