"He is the best player in the world by some distance. He's a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make."
Those words were all Arsène Wenger could offer when he was repeatedly hounded about the man who had just added the entire Arsenal cast into another personal highlight reel. But out of them, one word stuck to the imagination of fans, journalists, and coaches everywhere: "Playstation". It was a rather odd choice of word, and it was odder hearing it come out of Wenger's precise lips. Frankly, it was not a particularly poetic tribute to Messi's wizardry, though it captured the feeling of despondency which overcomes oppositions who must face him: "Playstation". At best it was a comparison someone might muster after being burned by an opponent in a pick-up game, critical thinking being lost in the heat of frustration. Perhaps Wenger was so flabbergasted that he lost the ability to produce a more clever turn of phrase, but one year later one cannot help but feel that the reason "Playstation" stormed the headlines was because it was so apt considering the circumstances. In his four goal masterclass, Messi had exhausted every synonym in the word bank until Wenger could only fall on "Playstation". In a sense, with his performance Messi had reached ineffability.
Aside from confirming the English language's defeat to the Argentine maestro, there was little else the word "Playstation" was good for. While the first three goals may have been something I could recreate with my little black console (given a decent number of opportunities), the last one was simply unachievable. The way he changed pace and direction twice, first to leave one defender and then two wrong-footed, was outside the boundaries of a video game. The defenders were completely lost as to when Messi would take his next touch on the ball, and with his close control it was impossible to dispossess him even though he had only five touches in the entire run. Rarely is such skill and precision so easily captured in nature, let alone a video game. In fact if Messi had been on a Playstation, I'd accuse him of cheating!
Or perhaps this is a better explanation
In that quarterfinal leg Messi put on such a spectacle that on its merit alone he might have won the Player of the Year award. While there were other fantastic displays by footballers during the year, none were so single handedly masterful. Even for the second goal, Messi started the entire move with the pass through to Keita out-wide before the ball was returned to him for the finish. Not only was Messi responsible for the entire attack, he handled it with unsurpassed variety and creativity. Chips, volleys, and nutmegs were all on display as they had been since the beginning of his still green career. The fans in the stadium could only bow in gratitude.
But aside from the communal genuflection from the Camp Nou masses, that night prompted several former legends and players to reiterate their belief that Messi would be remembered as one the greatest players in the game's history. Some upheld that argument with his goal and medal tallies. Ossie Ardiles believes that Messi's greatness is a testament that, "Sport has improved, all sports. Tennis, boxing, athletics, sportsmen move on, and in football the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players." While that statement is obviously true, certainly Messi will be remembered among the old greats because he belongs with them not because he is a model of the new breed of player. In fact, if anything Messi is a stark departure in the trend of modern footballers who have become increasingly massive and bulky. Avram Grant explains that, "With footballers getting larger, more mobile and more athletic, there's a premium on space. To create chances, you need room. Because of Messi's control, quickness and agility, he needs less room than others."
Not only does his diminutive advantage afford him more goal chances, it allows him to control and maneuver ball at whim, and it is that quality which separates him from the other great players of his generation and places him alongside the greatest players in history. With Ronaldo, one can always expect a thundering header should the ball meet him the air or a thunderous curler should he be afforded even five yards of space, but with Messi you can rarely predict the exact path he'll take to a goal or the exact moment he'll shift direction, even when you're watching from your arm chair! There is just no limit to number of options he has at his disposal.
In that sense Messi brings back the originality and improvisation which cemented football as the world's most popular sport. Jonathan Wilson writes, "In both Argentina and Uruguay the story is told of a player skipping through the opposition to score a goal of outrageous quality, and then erasing his footsteps in the dust as he returned to his own half so that no one should ever copy his trick." On the public stage there are no such romantic opportunities to safeguard one's intellectual secrets, but the appreciation for craft and copyright remains. Whether it be Le Tissier's spectacular juggling act, Bergkamp's phantom twist, or Zico's scorpion goal the great players in history have always had their own personal moments of ball magic. They are moments of self-authentication, and it is almost as if at least one such moment is mandatory for a player to acquire legendary status. It is not uncommon for players and fans to argue over who's goals were more original or imaginative, and even the ownership of more common moves like the rabona and the bicycle kick are disputed. While some may not take ball artistry all that seriously, those who do, take it very seriously indeed.
Giovanni Roccotelli is sometimes credited with the invention of the rabona ("crossed kick"), although there is clear footage of Pelé performing it more than a decade earlier.
|Credit: Fabio Messina|
The over head kick or bicycle kick. Known as bicicleta in Brazil, chilena in Chile, rovesciata in Italy, and chalaca in Peru.
So which defining moment(s) will win Messi the right into the pantheon of ball artists?
As tempting as it is to answer that question with another: "What moments won't win him the right?", it is still difficult to sieve through all of the highlights to pin that distinct maneuver which defines his football imagination, particularly because most of the time he is not required to aim for the extravagant. His movements are much too fluid, and he would generally only be hampered if set his mind on executing certain "tricks" or "moves". (In fact when Messi does perform a certain "trick" it is generally because the situation demands it.) Still it is certain that Messi has an appreciation and understanding for the lineage of ball wizards he belongs to, having replicated Maradona's two most famous goals in only his third season. The Goal of the Century, or as it was famously christened by Víctor Hugo Morales, Barrilete Cósmico ("The Cosmic Kite"), was reincarnated against Getafe, while La Mano de Dios ("The Hand of God") took form once more against Espanyol.
Messi's Barrilete Cósmico
|Credit: AP Images|
La Mano de Dios
|Credit: Unknown (youtube)|
Garrincha leaves a defender dancing to the samba
One of those moments came in another match which I am also sadly lost on the full details and context, but I remember seeing Messi receive an aerial ball and controlling it with his thigh. Only the ball still carried a sizable bounce, so to bring it back down he casually summoned the underside of his chin. It a was revelatory moment because I couldn't help but think to myself: "Gosh, if he can juggle a ball between his thigh and his chin, why doesn't he do that all the time? There would be no way defenses would be able to stop him!" It is unfortunate that moments like those will not likely be as well recorded and replayed as his great goals, but sometimes it is in those simple moments where you learn most about a player.
Luckily even among the sea of ridiculously simple but still jaw-dropping goals, Messi has no dearth of spectacular goals to prove his ingenuity either. In this season alone, one astonishing gem comes to mind. It happened in the small island of Mallorca after another long passing move by Barcelona. Keita looped the ball up in the air for Messi to meet it in the penalty area, but instead of bringing it down to his feet first time, Messi opted to let it bounce before juggling off it his chest and then dinking it over the keeper with his head. It was clever as the entire defense was expecting such a renowned dribbler to use his feet to finish the goal, and it was unbelievable in that with his 5'6" frame he managed to score using his chest and head. Moments after the match the Spanish media pronounced it as the "Sombrero de Messi" ("sombrero" roughly translates to rainbow flick, but more generally to any flick which brings the ball above head height).
|Credit: ESPN/ La Liga Feed|
Que Sombrero de Messi!
|Credit: ESPN/ La Liga Feed|
There's no stopping the smallest man on the pitch
Perhaps such intense examination is not required to realize that Messi is one of the greatest there has ever been, but fans and players can be obstinate to accept a new player in to the ring of greats who have left their mark in the game. It is a timeless question which spreads across all sports and all fields. Is someone merely the best among their peers, or have they truly contributed to their art in a way which is irreplaceable? As the years roll, medal counts and goal tallies fade to merely being numbers, and one has to stress harder to remember and resolve what distinguished a player as being great. That is why so many are pleading for patience before verdicts are set on Messi's legacy, not merely because he is only twenty three years old.
Still, at twenty three years he's already scored a variety of goals in matches (here's another unique one against Real Sociedad where he opts to go around the entire defense instead of cutting through it) and even in warm-ups. He has even earned his own nickname, La Pulga, an apt one because just like a fly you never know where he's going to move next but you can bet you won't be able to catch him. Perhaps one generally does require the eyes of history to verify and proclaim legends, but Messi seems to have reached legendary status even before arriving to the height of his career. Perhaps, just like the demi-gods of antiquity who were destined to feats of greatness, Messi belongs more to the realm of myth than of legend.