The case for Lionel Messi for SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year
Lionel Messi is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
To understand just how good Lionel Messi was this year, you have to go back to his lowest point.
It was January 4, Messi started on substitutes' bench and Barcelona lost 1-0 at lowly Real Sociedad. The following day, Messi missed training with "a stomach bug," which is a euphemism in Spain for playing hooky. Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona's sporting director, was sacked. Luis Enrique, the coach, was said to have offered to resign. Sandro Rosell, the president, resigned soon after over transfer irregularities. English clubs were readying bids for Messi. In short, Barcelona was in crisis.
Messi stepped up. He called a truce with the coach, and one week later, he scored in a crucial 3-1 win over reigning Spanish champion Atletico Madrid. It was the first time that Messi and his two high-profile teammates, Neymar and Luis Suarez, had scored in the same game. A photograph of the three of them wheeling away in delight was to become a defining image of the season.
Messi did not stop scoring after that. He scored 35 goals in the next 34 games and assisted on 19 more. Not only that, he saved his best for the big games. In a Champions League knockout game against Manchester City, he nutmegged (passing the ball between an opponent's legs and running round the side to collect it) two City players in the first half hour and set up the winning goal. His former coach, Pep Guardiola, watched in the stands and covered his mouth with his hand in shock at some of Messi's moves.
During the month of May, he was unstoppable: nine goals in seven games, and the best performance of his career. It came against his former mentor, Guardiola, coach of Bayern Munich, in the Champions League semifinal. This was a huge game, and Messi delivered a huge performance. He scored two goals, the second a moment of aesthetic beauty that left two World Cup winners, Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer, flat on their backs, and another defender Rafinha, lying defeated in the goalmouth. It was the best Messi has ever been.
The purple patch continued, and Messi scored the goal that clinched La Liga for Barcelona. It came, significantly and symbolically, against Atletico, the previous season's champion and the opponent against whom Barcelona ended its January crisis. The following week, he scored twice in the Copa del Rey final win over Athletic Bilbao, one of his goals a dizzying run from inside his own half that is a contender for FIFA's Puskas Goal of the Year award.
The only surprise about Barcelona's Champions League final win over Juventus, which clinched a treble not seen since Guardiola's 2009 vintage, was that Messi did not score. Normal service resumed this season, though, when Barcelona stole a march on its title rivals with another narrow win at Atletico. Messi scored the matchwinner–no surprise there–but this game had a neat symmetry to it.
Messi had become a dad for the second time and just flown in from Argentina (the nation that he guided to within one win of a Copa America title this past summer, adding to his storied year). So he started the game on the bench. This time there was no fallout with Luis Enrique, only a half-hour cameo in which he did his job.
Messi has won World Player of the Year honors four times in the last six years and is a favorite to make it five in seven, scoring more than 40 goals in each of those seasons (including an outrageous 73 in 2011-12). But what's really astonishing about his 2015 performances is that they topped anything that has done before. It's hard to believe, but Messi's level of play reached a new dimension while leading his team back to the top of three mountains, and that's why he should be SI's Sportsman of the Year.
As Jorge Valdano, who won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, put it: "In my opinion, Messi is the best player in the world. And the second-best player in the world is Messi injured."