Hail the new king
All professional soccer players, except perhaps for goalkeepers, score at least one great goal during their career. The good strikers, if they're lucky, will score one that goes down in history.
The difference between them and 20-year-old
The first one was for Barcelona in March during the Spanish League derby against Real Madrid. It was the last minute of the game, and Barça, playing a man down, was losing 3-2. Messi got the ball outside the box. Madrid's attack and defense had retreated; its only objective now was to stop the equalizing goal.
With a lightning dribble to the left, Messi flew past one frozen opponent, left another one on the ground and penetrated the area. He still had to beat
It all happened in the blink of an eye: Messi's third goal of the match, the equalizer that instantly made him, to the millions of fans following the game on TV, one of their favorite players in the world to watch.
That was the first course, light and tasty. The main dish, the following month, was pure protein, a juicy steak from the Pampas. It was
There's no sense in describing it, since anybody who hasn't seen it would not be reading these lines. Suffice to say that Messi received the ball at midfield on the right flank and dribbled past the whole Getafe defense, including the keeper. Another goal seen around the planet. Twenty times.
And the third, dessert, was the one he scored for Argentina against Mexico in the Copa América semifinals in July. This one only needed two touches, the first one in order to control the ball while sprinting to the edge of the Mexican area; the second one, still in full speed, a sublime chip.
The whole stadium, including Mexican goalie
Away from the pitch, dressed as a civilian, with no ball in sight, Lionel Andrés Messi is unremarkable. Pale and on the short side -- but with ripped shoulders from working out at the gym -- he shows up for an interview in an anonymous room at Camp Nou, Barcelona's stadium, wearing a yellow T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers.
Without any piercings or visible tattoos, and with a haircut that lacks the faintest inkling of inspiration, Messi is the anti-
How does one become so good at soccer? "Well," he says, with a thick Argentine accent that seven years in Barcelona have not changed a bit, "first of all you have to like it a lot." How much? "Well ... since I was 3 years old, I've been playing morning, afternoon and night. Inside the house as well. I would break things. My mom would get mad."
Does he continue playing inside the house? "I do," he says, with a slight and timid smile. (Messi is not
Besides loving the game, Messi says, he had to work hard and sacrifice. Sacrifice? When he was making a living doing what he loved? He gets worked up for the first and only time in the interview, betraying a hint of indignation.
"Yes, sacrifice," he says. "I was 13 years old when I had to leave Argentina, leave behind my friends and a good part of my family to come to Barcelona. Though my parents came with me, it was hard at that age."
It was also necessary. Messi would have been even smaller and skinnier -- his nickname, after all, is
When Messi showed up at the Catalonian club in late 2000, coach and former player
"The Barcelona youth system is one of the best in the world," he says. "They teach you not so much to play to win, but to grow as a player. That's why, as opposed to the experience I had in Argentina -- where it was more physical -- every day you would train with the ball. I barely did any running without the ball. It was an extremely technical training."
Barcelona's investment began to pay off in the '05 preseason, when Messi, then 18, cracked the starting 11 for the first time at Camp Nou in a friendly against Italian powerhouse Juventus.
"That," says Messi, "was the day people began to hear of me." Anybody who watched the game between these two star-filled teams knew that Messi was something special. He was the player of the match.
Capello used the right word. There is diabolical mischief in Messi's game, a savage, indomitable quality. That's why, anticipating the next Barça-Real derby, on Dec. 23, current Madrid coach
If David Beckham were a dog, the problem wouldn't be so much the collar as the hair. The Englishman, whose fame is utterly disproportional to his talent, is a great athlete who, through perseverance and repetition, has become a dead-ball expert. Messi is a live-ball expert. He is soccer in its natural state: the schoolyard genius, übertalented in the fundamental art of the dribble.
Even Ronaldinho, his brilliant teammate, is more of a studious player who deliberately, as he freely admits, imagines plays before they develop. Not Messi. Messi is spontaneity incarnate. "I don't watch games afterwards on TV," he says. "They say it helps you correct your mistakes, but not me."
He also doesn't fixate on other players, though he has a weakness for fellow Argentine
That may be why neither his opponents nor his teammates ever know what to expect from his left foot. "Each game you ask yourself, How did he do that?"
That's saying a lot. With Argentina, Milito plays alongside players of the caliber of Tévez and
Ronaldinho, who knows firsthand the virtues of fellow Brazilian
That evolution is manifest in the sheer range of Messi's skills. First of all, he is scoring more and more goals. After his hat trick against Real Madrid in March, he has scored an average of almost a goal per game. Second, to his incredible repertoire of dribbles he is adding a vision that befits -- and benefits -- Ronaldinho himself.
If you take a close look at the few bursts of magic that the Brazilian showed in '07 with Barcelona, they came from electrifying exchanges with Messi: give-and-gos or laserlike passes, the kind that create goals and that distinguished Maradona later in his career.
That's why Messi today is considered by his teammates and the Camp Nou faithful as the leader of Barcelona. He has ceased to be the lone ranger on the right wing and become -- despite being the youngest player in the starting 11 -- the sheriff, the one who inspires, creates and scores.
Yet he remains humble, a trait he must keep cultivating if he wants to fulfill his enormous potential and become not only the best player of his time but also a rival in the history books to his legendary predecessor at the Catalonian club,
"There's much I need to improve," Messi says. "For instance, shooting with both feet. My right-footed shot still needs some work. And to be able to take free kicks like Ronnie."
Does he hope that someday everyone will consider him the best player in the world? "It would be nice, but it's not something I'm obsessed with," he says. "Most of all I think of how fortunate I am. I thank God for everything He gives me, and for having the good fortune to play alongside these teammates in Barcelona and the national team."
Their sentiments exactly.