“I have never seen anyone like Leo Messi. He is a miracle from God.” – Arda Turan
Lionel Messi is not only the best footballer in the world today but also arguably the greatest of all time. His medal haul – eight league titles, five domestic cups, four Champions Leagues, five Ballon d’Ors – is mightily impressive, but even such a sizeable collection does not tell the full story of his incredible contribution to the sport. Messi has redefined what it means to be great: he can dribble, he can pass, he is tactically intelligent, he can score goals and he can set them up. The Argentinian is one of a kind. And yet he almost did not make it in the game.
Born in Rosario in June 1987, Messi began playing football with his older brothers and cousins at a very young age. He was just four years old when he joined local side Grandoli, before moving to Newell’s Old Boys, the club he and his family supported, at the age of six. Messi’s ability was clear for all to see even at such an early stage of his development, but concerns about his size put his chances of making a career out of football in jeopardy: the boy who was labelled a “dwarf” by Newell’s coach Adrian Coria was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at 10, and the treatment for such a condition did not come cheap.
After trying and failing to seek financial help from Argentinian outfits, Messi’s parents contacted Barcelona to try and arrange a trial for their son. The Catalan club agreed, but although they were impressed by what they saw they were reluctant to sign him, namely because transatlantic transfers of players so young was uncommon. When pushed for an answer, though, director Charly Rexach drew up an improvised contract on a napkin; a couple of months later, the Messi family moved to Barcelona and Lionel joined the club’s fabled youth ranks. Most importantly of all, he completed his hormone treatment not long after his 14th birthday.
Messi’s first-team debut came three years later in a La Liga match against local rivals Espanyol, with the 17-year-old entering the fray as a late substitute. He made nine appearances in total in the 2004/05 season, when Barcelona finished on top of the pile in Spain for the first time in six years, before making his first league start against Osasuna in the Blaugrana’s eighth game of the following campaign. He soon became Frank Rijkaard’s favoured option on the right wing, with Samuel Eto’o deployed through the centre and Ronaldinho out on the left, and a brilliant performance against Chelsea in the Champions League alerted a wider audience to his astonishing potential.
Messi became even more important to Barca in 2006/07, when he scored 14 times in 26 La Liga appearances – a tally that included a stunning solo effort in a victory over Getafe which bore an extraordinary similarity to Diego Maradona’s famous goal against England at the 1986 World Cup. The Argentinian soon replaced Ronaldinho as the Catalans’ star man, so much so that Pep Guardiola was prepared to sell the Brazilian playmaker upon taking charge of the first team in 2008.
Barcelona swept all before them in Guardiola’s debut season at the helm, winning a treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League while playing some truly beautiful football. Messi was at the heart of their success, but despite some incredible individual displays throughout 2008/09, Guardiola decided to change his position: for much of 2009/10, Messi operated in the centre of the pitch rather than out on the right flank. He had, in many ways, already been progressing in that direction – the Argentinian frequently vacated the wing to drift into central areas and had been fielded as a false nine in the Champions League final against Manchester United – but adopting the role on a permanent basis helped to take his game to another level. Messi won the Ballon d’Or four years in a row between 2009 and 2012, with Guardiola creating one of the greatest club sides in history during that time.
Curiously, the forward’s best year on an individual level came when Barcelona failed to win either La Liga or the Champions League in 2011/12. Messi played 60 games that season and found the back of the net on an astonishing 73 occasions, becoming Barcelona’s leading goalscorer of all time in the process. He also broke a 30-year record held by Gerd Muller, whose tally of 85 goals in the calendar year of 1972 was beaten by Messi’s 91 in 2012.
The next two years brought just a single trophy in the form of the 2012/13 La Liga title, but Barcelona were crowned kings of Europe once more under the guidance of Luis Enrique in 2014/15. The acquisition of Luis Suarez from Liverpool the previous summer saw Messi move back to the right wing, with the Uruguayan and Argentinian teaming up with Brazil international Neymar to form a mouth-watering South American front three. Messi scored 58 goals that season as Barca claimed another treble; although they then fell short in Europe in 2015/16, the ‘MSN’ trident continued to amaze – between them, Messi, Suarez and Neymar made the net ripple 131 times in all competitions last term.
Last season ended in disappointing fashion for Messi, however: a penalty shoot-out defeat by Chile in the final of the Copa America Centenario extended his and Argentina’s barren run without a trophy. Messi has come close on multiple occasions – the Albiceleste have reached the final of three Copa Americas and one World Cup in his time – but the 29-year-old has still not sampled the taste of success at senior level.
That failure to get his hands on a piece of silverware has led to unfavourable comparisons with Maradona, who almost single-handedly led Argentina to glory in 1986, but it is unfair to claim that Messi will always be inferior to his compatriot unless he wins an international tournament; after all, the Barcelona man would probably have triumphed on both the global and continental stage by now had team-mate Gonzalo Higuain shown more of a clinical edge in front of goal in 2014 and 2015, while his record at club level blows Maradona’s out of the water.
Discussing Messi is an exercise in searching for the superlatives that do him justice. Former Barcelona boss Guardiola put it best: “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him.”