Seeking that big stamp
Lionel Messi needs a World Cup success to be placed in the company of a Pele or a Diego Maradona.
After accomplishing so many things, Lionel Messi is now down to the small numbers that define greatness. He began this week by eclipsing Pele’s record of 75 goals in a calendar year, set in 1958. Now just one man, Gerd Muller, who scored 85 times in 1972, stands ahead of Messi as the all-time accumulator of goals in a single year.
Messi, Messi, Messi. The records fall to him like drops of sweat off the brow of those who try to keep up with him on the field.
The Argentine is great. We know that, and we do not need mathematical justification to acknowledge it. He is a king of frequent flyer miles, too, making a trip to Riyadh to lead Argentina in a friendly against Saudi Arabia last Wednesday before flying back to Barcelona by the weekend to start the remaining nine matches of the club’s 2012 itinerary.
A goal a game – well below Messi’s ratio – would let him pass Muller.
So much for statistics. And so what? Muller is the third man in this equation, but the German was never the player that Pele indubitably was, or that Messi is becoming.
Comparisons are unfair over different times because the pace of the game, the rewards, the fields, the diet and the conditioning of players have changed.
I have respect, affection even, for what Muller made of his limited talents in a body that was not made for aesthetic movement. He was short and squat, but he had a low centre of gravity, and he could swivel and shoot with great power. He was more like Ferenc Puskas, the Galloping Major of Hungarian soccer, in that respect.
They lived for goals, and Muller apparently obeyed a voice inside his head.
“Something told me Gerd go this way, Gerd go that way,” he said. “I did.” The trait of Der Bomber. A phenomenal, but a singular instinct.
When his goals dried up, Gerd did not know which way to go. He was in the United States, winding down his career, when he turned to the bottle, and perhaps the greatest achievement of his life was defeating alcoholism with the help of his friends back at Bayern Munich.
As players, however, Pele and Alfredo Di Stefano and Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and George Best were more complete. Messi is in their class, as his rival at Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo, might be, too.
It is breathtaking and beautiful seeing such men create their own styles while in the process chasing down the records of the great goal scorers. They are so much more than strikers, even though that is the end product of the sport, and even though they outscore their contemporaries who are paid just to shoot, head and accumulate where they can.
Messi, in my eyes, surpasses Ronaldo in the way that he plays for the team, in how he creates for others and, though this is a subjective opinion, in the way that he exudes contagious joy in being out on the field.
Less than two weeks ago, Messi’s performance level dipped markedly. It was a Saturday in La Liga, and he was playing 24 hours after his girlfriend had given birth to their first child, a son called Thiago.
Would that new responsibility, new love in his life, change the manner in which Lionel Andres Messi appears so consumed by his game? For that weekend, maybe. Since then he has scored once in the Champions League and twice in the Spanish League, and now he is airborne pursuing more of the goals that, at last, have flowed in 2012 for Argentina.
Maradona said introspectively two years ago in South Africa while coaching at the World Cup that Messi was Argentina’s new Maradona. But as dynamically as Messi ran at that tournament, he could not score then as he does now, in virtually every game for Barcelona.
There was a reason. There always is a reason behind great men in a team sport. Where Pele had Gerson and Tostao creating with him and for him at the 1970 World Cup, Messi has Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona today.
Brazil was the greatest collection of players on a national side, and Barca’s is the finest collection schooled through one club that most of us can remember seeing.
It was not just three players in Pele’s time, and it is far from that at Barcelona today. Nine players of the team that finished the game Sunday in Mallorca were raised, as Messi was from the age of 13, at Barcelona’s La Masia academy. They know every move, every muscle, every instinct in one another.
And when you hear Xavi and Iniesta say, as both often do, that Messi is superior to anyone they have known, that testimony means something.
Yet, here is the rub. Messi is not, and cannot be compared with those two, or with Pele, with Maradona, even in one aspect with Muller.
He will not be their equal until he wins a World Cup. He can surpass his peers every time that he plays, not simply through his scoring but through the mesmeric way that he finds space, through the runs that take out four opponents in an instant, and through the movement that most of us would know is Messi even if he were in silhouette.
His love of Barcelona is augmented by gratitude to the club that took him in and paid the huge medical bills required to get him through a growth deficiency in his adolescence.
He has not, and never will have, the huge thighs that Pele developed from the time that the Brazilian won his first World Cup in 1958, the year when he set the record Messi has just broken.
In physical makeup, and in a multitude of other ways, Messi will not grow into a Pele. But unless he can galvanise Argentina, as Maradona once did, his legacy in the game will not be comparable.
Messi is 25. There is time for him, if he sustains his fitness and desire, to go on and double the 273 goals he has scored in 346 appearances at Barca. But he needs teammates, as all the greats did, to fill the missing element to his unfolding greatness.