• Lionel Messi

From humble beginnings

ESPN staff
March 17, 2014
ESPN FC: Messi an 'unstoppable force'

I must admit I consider myself very fortunate to have been present for Lionel Messi's first Barcelona goal. Both of them.

Please forgive the grammar; it's not really an error.

Back on May 1, 2005, in a game against Albacete, the world got a taste of "Lionel Messi, the scoring genius" for the first time. Sent on as a substitute for Samuel Eto'o with a couple of minutes left, Messi took a delightfully clever assist pass from Ronaldinho and lobbed the ball over goalkeeper, Raul Valbuena.

The referee and his assistant wrongly called the effort offside and, with only seconds of normal time remaining, that would have been that for any normal player.

But, 371 goals later, we know that you can never use that particular adjective for Messi who, on Sunday, passed Paulino Alcantara's club record mark for goals.

Back on that May day almost nine years ago, when Barca full-back Gio Van Bronckhorst won possession back and fed Deco, Messi came alive. Having received the ball from the Portuguese, he laid it off to Ronaldinho.

Guess what happened next?

The best player in the world at that moment conjured up an identical assist pass to this 17-year-old kid with a floppy haircut taken right off the front cover of The Beatles' Revolver LP.

You see, Ronaldinho already knew that which we were about to learn: Messi was his better as a footballer.

From almost the same blade of glass with almost the identical lack of angle, Messi didn't break stride and used his left boot with more subtlety and "loft" than any golfer in any Masters' bunker. The ball just arced over Valbuena again and nestled in the corner of the net as if it was a dog returning happily to its kennel. Only Messi could open his lifetime account with precisely the same goal, scored twice within the space of a few seconds in front of an incredulous 80,000 audience.

Messi celebrates his maiden Barca strike with Ronaldinho © Getty Images

Young Messi said about the post-goal jouissance: "I don't know what happened because I could hear the crowd chanting my name but I couldn't see anything. I don't know if I sort of fainted or the emotion of scoring my first goal at the Camp Nou ... but it all went blank".

The roar of the crowd and the impact of what he'd just done put the kid into "system overload" but those two moments, during which he'd been called on to execute enormous skill at high speed? Well, those had been no problem whatsoever.

Ice-cold veins.

Since then, Messi has taught us that, while he has goals in his blood the way that Beethoven could write great music without being able to hear it, they are scored to win matches and trophies and not for personal vanity.

So it is worth putting his club record total in perspective.

When the Argentinian scored that first goal, his team-mates Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol had won one and zero club trophies respectively. Cut to today: those totals are now 22 and 21.

Football is a team game and Barcelona have not broken that rule.

In this current, golden, era they rely on all 11 pieces to be highly intelligent, deeply talented and brimming with stamina, or else the shine can dull. But it's obviously not a coincidence that Xavi and Puyol's trophy hauls have shot up astronomically during Messi's goalscoring spree

Whether it's winning tough away games, scoring cup final goals or running wild at the Camp Nou hitting three, four or five goals, Messi has been the engine behind this club's trophy jackpot since 2005.

But it is not just these goals that we are celebrating, it is his ruthless winning attitude too. Rarely sent off, Messi is almost always fit and even on his very worst days he can produce bursts of rare magic.

I have never, at any other time in my journalistic career, spoken to so many sportsmen or women who are absolutely and utterly convinced that they are living in the presence of the greatest ever.

I was too young to be working when Muhammad Ali was excelsior but his sport was individual pugilism. It's not the same as being thought of as the greatest in a team sport; the comparisons are so much harder to calibrate in football.

Personally, I'm still relatively unconvinced of the need to seek out and brand someone as the "all-time best" because it's brutally hard to make the criteria identical.

But over the Messi reign I've heard so many of those who've worked with him -- among them Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta -- make clear that their genius colleague has never had an equal.

Their sentiments may not be definitive but they are persuasive.

Since that day against Albacete I've had the great fortune to be present for the majority of this man's goals. The trickle became a deluge so quickly, and the torrent is now so full that not all of them stand out, but there are a panoply which do.

The saddest? Probably that "Maradona" goal against Getafe in April 2007.

The diamond in an otherwise flawed Barcelona Copa del Rey semifinal first leg 5-2 win, it stood for nothing in the end given that Messi was rested by Frank Rijkaard for the return leg and Bernd Schuster's team won 4-0 to go through.

The most satisfying? Rome, 2009 vs. Manchester United.

Sections of the English media had been queuing up to diminish Messi's growing fame based on what was already, clearly, just a statistical anomaly. The tone was that "he wasn't all that" given that he had never scored against an English club.

That the smallest man on the pitch scored the clinching header, leaping to nod the ball back over a petrified Edwin Van Der Sar, was the perfect riposte. Plus, it sealed his first Champions League final win (injury prevented him from playing in the 2006 final).

The best? All of this is subjective but I'll never forget the ripple of astonishment, followed by a Catalan primal roar, around the Bernabeu stadium in the 2011 Champions League semifinal first leg when Messi picked the ball up almost at the halfway line and slalomed past every man in white who challenged him before putting Barcelona 2-0 up against Real Madrid.

It sticks with me only partly because after the previous week's (losing) Copa final against the same opponents, I'd asked Guardiola whether he thought that even for a "false nine" Messi was playing so deep, behind his own midfield, that it was hindering his chances to score.

Pep responded: "I've asked Leo to be much more than a goalscorer. His role is to participate fully in the game. He can go to the areas of the pitch he thinks are best for him to do that. The idea is that he's involved in all aspects of the game much more than someone who's just a finisher because he's our decisive player."

You can bet that I felt Guardiola's answer had been fully vindicated when Messi beat six men in a run which zig-zagged across half the Bernabeu pitch to, effectively, put Barcelona in the Champions League final at Wembley.

I mention all this because, like each of the true greats who have played in an attacking role, Messi is so, so much more than a prolific finisher.

As Guardiola said, he's the "decisive player."

Tito Vilanova, then assistant manager, commented on the fact that Madrid had had a man sent off when that goal was scored and told me: "When Messi dribbles past six opponents and scores in a Champions League semifinal at Madrid, the important fact isn't whether or not the rivals have 10 or 11 men on the pitch; it's that he's capable of dribbling past six opponents on his own and scoring."

The vision, the dribble, the exploitation of space, the balance and the daring. The ingenuity. Plus, the finish.

Lots of things beyond this remarkable total, which make him -- aged 26 -- Barcelona's all-time leading scorer, indicate that Messi is a mould-breaker.

He's almost as happy scoring away from home in all competitions (traditionally held to be a much harder feat) as in the friendly environ of the Camp Nou.

Any forward who retired with something like a goal every other game (one in two) was generally held to have been in the elite, but Messi has halved the ratio which was traditionally held to be the mark of a truly great striker.

He is currently extremely close to scoring one per game. His first 196 appearances at the Camp Nou yielded 187 goals. He's not quite there but is so close that he's a marvel of this sport.

During his 10 years as a senior professional Messi has set almost as many records as he's scored goals ... and there are more to come.

Soon he'll be the all-time leading scorer in the Champions League. He'll have done it in vastly fewer games than the current leader, 71-goal Raul Gonzalez Blanco, who he currently trails by four.

So, all in all, thank you Guardiola for moving Messi from the wing to the "false nine" role, which has also moved him from star to superstar.

Thank you Celia Cuccitini, the much-loved maternal grandmother of the player and the one who first said to local coaches in Argentina: "give the kid a game, can't you see he's a phenomenon?"

Indeed, it is to Granny Celia, who died in 1998, that Messi has dedicated most of his goals with that now world-famous raising of two supplicant arms towards the heavens.

May we see those arms aloft for many, many years to come.

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