It should go beyond heated rivalries and personal battles, records are there to be broken. Lionel Messi represents something so much more than a footballer in Barcelona colours. He’s the kind of athlete that excites the world of his sport. Like Wayne Gretzky did in the eighties with the Edmonton Oilers, like Robert Griffin III is currently doing in Washington, DC, prompting Mike Wilbon to call him the best player in the NFL today. Sports needs these players to help define a generation.
And never before has a player lit up the soccer stage in the way Messi has—at least not in my lifetime. I’m old enough to look to players like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Brazil’s Ronaldo, but never have I seen a player reach 84 goals in a calendar year, doing so with such brilliance and unforgettable ability.
Barcelona’s 0-0 draw with Benfica at the Camp Nou during the final group game of this season’s Champions League should have seen Messi reach 85 goals for the year. Instead, the player was being carted off the pitch following a collision with Benfica goalkeeper Artur. It should have been another celebration of a once in a generation player, watching him levelling the score with Gerd Muller and having plenty of time left in the month to set a new record.
The scores around Europe for the final games of the group stage went by without much fuss, largely there was nothing in the way of surprises or upsets worthy of writing home about. But it seemed as though everyone homed in on Messi and the news of his injury.
For all his trickery and speed, Messi is the furthest thing from a diver in the modern game. Such is his desire to just play the game without hassle and theatrics, it’s easy to remember the last time Messi went to ground and stayed down after a challenge.
Atletico Madrid defender Tomas Ujfalusi went in with studs raised and crashed into the ankles of the Barcelona star. That was it for Messi on the day, naturally it was also it for Ujfalusi on the day. Messi remained out for a handful of games following, but nevertheless returned without the fears of further injury. That was in September 2010.
This time it was something similar, as Messi lay motionless as the cart drove him off the pitch. The record is on the line, but perhaps more importantly so is the best player of this generation.
Following, Messi said he feared that game could have been the last time he’d kick a ball in anger. At 25 years of age and so many records, it’s easy for such a thing to come to an instant ending. Yes, followers of Real Madrid and supporters of Cristiano Ronaldo may have been hoping for a lengthy layoff for the Argentine forward, as what better way to gain a few yards on the Pichichi, awarded to the top scorer in Spain.
But as mentioned, this goes beyond rivalries. The debate rages on as to whether Messi is the greatest of all-time, and most still stand firm alongside Diego Maradona or Pele. But where’s the fun in sports if the best live in the past and there’s nothing exciting left to come in the future?
Messi equalling Muller’s record of 85 goals would have been a fantastic achievement. Messi overtaking Muller would have been groundbreaking and would certainly have set up another to challenge the throne many years in the future.
We don’t need them every year or even every few years. But players like Messi don’t come along very often, and that’s why they’re special. Watching your own team lift a league title is the zenith of being a supporter. But being a fan of the game doesn’t get much better than the feel good moments that are created by players like Messi.