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My Sportsman: Lionel Messi

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Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

It can only be Messi. With apologies to my SI colleagues, smart individuals who have a right to their opinions, to select anyone but Lionel Messi as SI's Sportsman of the Year is a like choosing a Buick over a Benz, Chevy's Fresh Mex over Chez Pannise. Think of the Grand Canyon. Now imagine it twice as wide. That's the gap between Messi's brilliance and that of every other athlete in the world. He's operating on a different plane. He's chess, and everybody else is checkers.

Before I extol further, let me say that such fawning does not come easy for me. In years past I have gone the contrarian route when choosing a Sportsman. I once selected Trevor Graham, the BALCO whistle-blower and a peddler of PEDs who should be no one's hero. Another year my choice was BadRap, an organization that cares for dogs abused by the likes of Michael Vick. Myles Brand, the NCAA president, got my vote after his death in 2009, not because of what he did but for what he hoped to achieve.

In general, I find the practice of selecting something as "the greatest" (or, God help me, a top-10 list) a fool's errand, and so in the past I've gone with Sportsmen so outside the mainstream that I am guaranteed to be alone in my advocacy, the loon no one bothers with.

This year, I am throwing my vote to Messi, willing to take any and all abuse from those who hate soccer or favor inferior players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney. Messi is the greatest soccer player in the world on the greatest team and barring injury will likely leave the game a decade or so from now as the finest player to ever touch a ball. How magnificent is Messi? In the words of Roy Hudson, "There is no answer. It's like counting the bubbles in a bottle of Champagne."

Barcelona won the Champions League title last season, its second in three years. Messi scored 12 goals in Champions League play, the leading scorer in that competition for the third consecutive year. Many of his goals were magical, like this threading run through the Real Madrid defense last April. Overall, he scored 53 times in 55 appearances in 2010-11 and led Barcelona to the La Liga title.

He was named the world's best player in 2010 by FIFA and is favored among 23 nominees to win again this year. He also won in 2009 and was runner-up in 2007 and 2008. Messi's excellence, however, cannot be measured merely by stats. How he succeeds is as important as what he accomplishes. He is physically gifted, of course, possessing elite quickness and agility, but Messi typically bests opponents with technical ability, the learned part of his game. Ronaldo and Rooney are more physically gifted, but Messi has more class, and soccer proudly remains a game where a technician can still rule.

Hudson says watching Messi "softens the hard corners of our lives," and for once I totally understand what Roy is saying. Messi doesn't bully the game; he gently manipulates it until the product suits his tastes. He is a craftsman in total control.

Messi's appeal is bolstered by the fact that we hear so little from and about him. His club and sponsors shield him, so unlike most athletes of his stature we aren't subjected to his thoughts on everything. It is rare in an age when athletes are becoming bigger and bigger celebrities that Messi remains, relatively speaking, just outside the spotlight's center. We may eventually learn that he isn't a lovable scamp, that he has some skeletons in his closet, but at the moment the void of information creates a phenomenon from a different time: an athlete judged entirely by his play.

In my judgment, Messi is the best, as deserving a Sportsman as you'll find.