What sets Lionel Messi apart?
"Messi" is hardly just a name anymore. Over the past five years, it has come to represent more than a 5'7" athlete. To those who know and love the game of soccer, the name has taken on a mythical connotation that makes it hard to see him as just a player. There are several names that have held this power over the life of this great sport, and Lionel Messi is carrying the torch now. Messi started his career like millions of others but has taken it to a place only a few have been able. On May 28th (Champions League final, FOX, 2 p.m. ET), the world will watch one of the greatest players to ever grace a soccer field demonstrate his superiority in the biggest game of the year.
His story starts like most: A young boy from a humble background falls in love with a ball, and it falls in love with him right back. From his earliest days in Rosario, Argentina, everyone could tell that this boy was different from the rest. Like most child prodigies, playing the game just came naturally to him. His talent separated him from the rest of the boys, but it was another thing that separated him from others his age; leading to his serendipitous arrival at one of the most successful youth academies of all time.
Messi had been flourishing with the club Newell's Old Boys. The pairing was ideal, as the club was close to his home, and Messi's father was a coach. However, other factors were at play that made life more complicated for the Messi family. Lionel's health was not as blessed as his feet, and his parents noticed warning signs in his early development.
At the age of 11, Messi was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency. The expensive treatment required for this condition was a constant stress on the family's finances. Barcelona had been tracking Messi's progress, and when they became aware of these difficulties, made the Messi family an offer they couldn't refuse. The club offered to pay for his treatments of close to $900 a month if they would allow Lionel to move to Spain and continue his soccer education in their famous La Masia academy. That moment set in motion a 10-year metamorphosis of a child into a soccer God.
Messi tore through youth tournaments much like he tears through defenses today. He looked out of place against players his own age. Most talented young players need these opportunities in youth tournaments to learn valuable lessons and grow amongst their peers. However, like other prodigies, Lionel had surpassed these lessons early and was ready the highest level. At 16 years old, an age where most young athletes are balancing their high school team with looking for prom dates, Messi debuted for Barcelona - one of the most successful soccer clubs in the world.
Like the legends before him, Messi make a seamless transition from the youth to professional level while still in his teens. When asked, “why is Messi that good,” we can look at athletes in other sports who have made the same leap – ones who became one of the best right from the start. Young prodigies like Sidney Crosby, Lebron James, and Tiger Woods became greats by mastering sports' three S's: skill, speed, and smarts. Skill and speed are things that every young athlete works at from the start, but smarts is a factor that's innate in the truly great. Messi excels at all three.
He's amongst the most skilled we've ever seen. Having watched endless tape of some of the best dribblers of all time - Johan Cruyff, George Best, Diego Maradona - each used the simplest movements to get past their defenders. They were so dexterous, they didn't need to rely on tricks to beat players. Each one had a bagful of party tricks to entertain the crowd, but the art of their craft was in knowing that all they needed was to move the ball where the defenders foot wasn't. It sounds simple, but trust me: There is a sacred art in it. They had such tight control of the soccer ball - touching it, with every step they took at top speed - that your only hope of winning it as a defender was if they gave it to you.
Messi's ability with the ball mirrors those greats. He has the same top speed control. You don't see him do any step overs, drags or other fancy tricks. His genius is in making a defender believe they can win the ball from him. He baits them by presenting the ball close enough that they're compelled to challenge, stabbing at the ball, losing their balance. At that moment, Messi has them.
Most attacking players try and beat defenders with a move, but Messi waits a moment and lets defenders beat themselves. He makes it look effortless, but touching the ball every step at top speed while looking up - ready to cut on a dime, in any direction - is a skill only a handful of players have ever perfected.
His foot speed and speed of thought are a lethal combination. There are plenty of players in the game who are faster than Messi but nowhere near as effective. The difference: Messi can maintain top speed with the ball at his feet. Dribbling does not slow him down. He stays in complete control with every touch, with every step, allowing him to make the tightest of passes, creating unparalleled shooting angles. Most other players are unable to pull off the same plays because that one step - that one split second - makes all the difference.
Other players with incredible skill and speed underwhelm when compared to the greatness of Messi. The distinction lies in the most important "S," where Messi blows away the competition: smarts. Soccer IQ is what takes talented players from good to great. When you get to the international level, the top level of professional soccer, decision-making is that last quality that separates players. Making smart choices at top speed is what all elite athletes are capable of on a consistent basis. Players that make good decisions on the field are more composed, helping them to dictate play (instead of just reacting to it).
Another quality of great players is something I call "controlling the urge to surge." The hardest lesson for young phenoms to master is how to avoid relying on hitting top speed or pulling out the bag of tricks until the situation calls for it. Messi can dribble past any player on the field whenever he pleases. He can get a shot off on goal anytime he finds himself within 30 yards. But it's knowing the right time to do these things, and controlling the urge to show people how great you can be every time you touch the ball, that makes all the difference.
This is the one big differentiation between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two greatest players in the world. Messi makes everyone around him better by making the right decisions and putting people in the right positions. He sacrifices his need to demonstrate his superiority on the field and gives others the spotlight when it will benefit the team. It is something that most other great players in sports, including Ronaldo, have failed to master. This is what makes Messi the best.
There are few things in this world greater than watching someone do something you love perfectly. Soccer is what I love, and Messi plays the game to perfection. This Saturday, when Barcelona takes on Manchester United, I will sit down and be transfixed on the young alchemist wearing the 10 shirt, playing the game like only a small group before him have been able to. Every time he cuts the ball on a dime, serves a ball to his teammate on a platter, or curls a ball beautifully towards the goal, I will shake my head and smile knowing one day I will enjoy telling my kids about the great Messi.
Kyle Martino is a former U.S. Men's National team midfielder and Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year who provides analysis on FOX Soccer's MLS broadcasts as well as FOX Soccer's Super Sunday Plus.