Living in New Zealand as I do, it is easy to lose touch with some facets of the European game. For example, I haven’t seen Lionel Messi play live on TV for a very long time, or at least I hadn’t until I saw him run the show as Barcelona gave Bayern Munich a footballing lesson at the Nou Camp this morning.
And so when I hear talk of Messi and Kaka and all the other superstars who don’t ply their trade in the Premier League being touted as the ‘best player in the world’, I find it really hard to take them seriously. It’s not that i doubt their credentials, I know that they are fantastic players, but they almost seem not to exist for me. If I had to pick a ‘best player in the world’ it would necessarily be from the Premier League, because I don’t get the chance to watch other players regularly enough to judge them properly.
What I’m saying is, it’s difficult to keep up with football over here, but then sometimes, football catches right up with you. Watching Barcelona play this morning, I was very impressed by the way the Spaniard’s played their game, but I was astounded at just how good Messi has become. He was everywhere.
The last time I saw him, Barca were in a bit of a slump, Ronaldinho was on his last legs at the club and Real Madrid were on the way to claiming the title. And Messi showed glimpses of incredible talent, but often when given the ball under pressure he could not produce the goods. But boy, watching him for 90 minutes against Munich this morning it is easy to see why he is considered the best in the world.
Every time he got the ball he looked a threat. Sure, Bayern’s defence seemed terrified of him from the off (perhaps rightly so), but his speed of thought, speed of foot and sheer invention were just a cut above any of the German club’s players. Of course it helps that Messi was playing in a team with Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Eto’o etc. etc. which will make many players look good, but it was the way that the ball always seemed to gravitate towards Messi’s right flank that showed you just how essential he is to their cause.
With some players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, we see them terrorise defences consistently in (dare I say it) ‘run of the mill’ league matches, but often when it comes to the really big matches, the highest stage, they seem to disappear a little. It is not necessarily that they don’t play well, it’s just that they don’t shine as brightly amongst other players of a higher calibre. They are playing with equals, and so they do not look as special, do not stand out as much and dominate proceedings as we usually expect them to.
However, Messi seems to have developed into a player on which Barca can rely. When it comes to the cut and thrust, the games that matter, Messi will stand up and be counted for them. He will drive them on and inspire his team mates. And it is not just that. Messi consistently performs at the highest level for his team, but he also looks just as impressive when playing against Bayern Munich as he does when playing his league matches against the less glamorous Spanish sides.
And what this says to me about Messi is that he is a cut above almost any other player in the world. Even when playing with players of the calibre of Xavi, Iniesta and Henry, and against the likes of Frank Ribery and Luca Toni, Messi still looks head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch – which, given his diminutive physical stature, is no mean feat.
Of course, the more sceptical among you will say “oh but you said yourself you’ve only seen him play once recently” and you would be right. I did say that, and it is true, and I am not proposing to make objective claims here. But the thing is, I do try and follow results in the European leagues, and I’ve seen that this season for Barca, Messi has been there on the score-sheet for them time and again and made the difference, and so based on that and the glowing reports that he consistently receives, I think my praise of him is justified.
And while this article does suggest that Messi is up there with the best players in the world, it does not claim that he is the best. I acknowledged earlier that I don’t get to see the likes of Kaka play at all, and so I can’t make that judgement. But i would suggest that Messi is better than both C.Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard, others who have been recently touted for the honour. The thing is, while those players do win matches single handedly, Messi does so too and he simply stands out more. He seems more special to me, he has a certain ‘wow-factor’ that only the rarest of players possess.
So now I feel that I have caught up with football, I have seen Messi at his flying best, and I hanker for more. It is strange, before this morning, Messi wasn’t real to me. He was a name that was usually followed by a succession of superlatives. Now though, I know what the football world drools and raves about, and I feel once more in touch with football. It is easy to become stranded over here, in the land of egg-chasers and so I savour moments like these when I am privileged enough to witness footballs true greats in action.
Because what I have learnt from today’s match is that Messi looks set to be one of those rare players who go down as a true great of football. With the likes of Pele, Maradonna, Best and Beckenbauer, in some years time, I reckon the name Messi will be just as revered, spoken in hushed tones and his greatest moments will be relived again and again. I don’t think this morning’s match will be amongst those greatest moments, but it was still special enough to make him really stand out for me, and that, surely, is the mark of a great player: to illuminate any match that they grace.