The age of Lionel Messi

Powered by article titled “The age of Lionel Messi” was written by Richard Williams, for The Guardian on Sunday 8th January 2012 21.30 UTC

David Beckham was in the news again last week, the world’s most famous footballer announcing his decision to spend another year in Los Angeles where his family are happily ensconced, rather than accepting a lucrative offer to return to Europe. But being the world’s most famous footballer is not the same as being the best. Despite being amusingly nicknamed Goldenballs by his wife, Beckham has never won the real Golden Ball: the Ballon d’Or, the venerable award presented to the player of the year, which is almost certain to be given, for the third year in a row, to Lionel Messi, the little Argentine who plays for Barcelona, currently the world champion club.

It is the measure of Messi‘s greatness that no one ever talks about how much he is paid, or about the women he goes out with. Any conversation on the 24-year-old maestro will be so occupied with his feats on the pitch that there is no room for gossip. For the past half-dozen seasons the entire world of football has been beguiled by the way this little man skips, dances, wriggles and scuttles between defenders, scoring beautiful goals from all angles and any range. And when he celebrates, it is with the same modesty that he appears to conduct his life off the pitch.

Only one other player – Michel Platini, the epitome of French artistry in the 1980s – has won the Ballon d’Or on three consecutive occasions. Until 1995 the award was restricted to European players with European clubs, which means that it was never presented to Pelé and Diego Maradona, generally reckoned to be the two best players of all time.

Messi arrived in Europe with his parents at the age of 13, troubled by a hormone deficiency that was retarding his physical growth. Barcelona pledged to fund an expensive course of treatment which no club in Argentina could afford, and eventually he grew to a height of 5ft 6½ inches: an inch and a half taller than Maradona, an inch and a half shorter than Pelé. The Catalan club built a team in which he could express his gifts, and their fans have been enjoying an avalanche of trophies.

When he first appeared on the big stage, aged 17, his pageboy haircut and childlike smile made him look like the missing fifth member of the Monkees. Nowadays the demands placed on the young millionaires of the major clubs are so unrelenting that a grim, abrasive determination is the prevailing mood at all levels, but the dazzling inventiveness and impish joy that characterised Messi as a teenager remain intact, his play a throwback to the days when players could enjoy themselves on the pitch and share that warmth with their audience. Although he was sent off two minutes into his senior international debut, back in 2005, for allegedly headbutting a Hungarian defender who had been pulling his shirt, his name has otherwise been a byword for impeccable behaviour and grace under pressure.

Already he is being groomed for a place on the all-time podium alongside Pelé and Maradona. Like them, he was a prodigy who turned the ball into a personal possession. Unlike them, however, he has yet to impose himself on the biggest tournament of all. Pelé won the World Cup on three occasions, each time as the spearhead of an exceptional team. Maradona won it once, more or less single-handed. Messi featured briefly in 2006 and more extensively in 2010, without making the expected impression. Some in Argentina wonder if, having spent almost half his life in Spain, he has a full emotional commitment to the national team.

There can be few lovers of football who would not like to see him, so clearly a force for good in the game, achieve that grandest of triumphs. It may come in time, since the other trait he shares with Pelé and Maradona is an ability to place his individual genius at the service of his team. Given luck with fitness (and despite his early problems, he now seems resilient enough to brush off the few ferocious tackles he cannot evade), he will figure in at least two more World Cups.

In the meantime a generation of boys and girls can enjoy the thrill of wearing a replica Barcelona shirt with his name and number on the back. One day, like those of us who reminisce about his great predecessors, they will know the pleasure of telling their grandchildren that they were around in the age of Lionel Messi.

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