On October 16 2004 Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard played something of an unexpected curve ball during a La Liga fixture against Espanyol by handing a debut to a diminutive playmaker who had steadily risen through the La Masia ranks.
Birth of a legend
Heralded as a player of untold potential, but yet remaining relatively unknown outside of Catalonia, the forward donned the famous Barcelona first-team shirt for the first time against arguably the club’s biggest rivals. His name? Lionel Messi.
His introduction was the culmination of years of investment, faith and development on Barca’s part. They had taken a prodigal, yet extremely weak, young child and funded a project which would enable him to compete with players far more physically advanced than himself.
It was a risk, no two ways about it. There was a risk in flying he and his family from Argentina to Spain, there was a risk in footing the vast medical bills that came as a product of his battle with growth hormone deficiency, and there was a risk in keeping him on the books when the likes of Francesc Fabregas were let go during a financially-enforced purge of the youth system in 2003.
Realisation of glory
It’s safe to say the individuals responsible for taking those risks are sitting fairly smug right now. Fresh from scoring his 400th goal for club and country at the weekend Messi is in the process of re-inventing himself under the tutelage of Luis Enrique, and his stock is once more on an upward climb.
Numerous records broken, numerous trophies one and countless showcases of his incredible talent have pushed him to the point where he now need not worry about his legacy upon retirement. If he were to hang up his boots tomorrow he would still go down as one of the best to have ever played the game.
The best ever?
Perhaps the biggest argument which still remains undetermined by an obvious majority verdict is whether or not he deserves to be mentioned in the same breathe as Pele and Diego Maradona, whether he has yet to reach their level or whether he has already surpassed them at just 27.
Ultimately it’s a contest which is more often than not resolved by personal opinion, with just as many people ready to label him the greatest of all time as believe that he isn’t even the best footballer of his generation.
Messi vs Ronaldo
The latter theory is validated by the presence of long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who continues to stake his claim for a place in a pantheon of greats even Pele and Maradona can’t claim to be sitting in with his remarkable feats at Real Madrid. Only a poor judge indeed would deem that Messi and his Portuguese counterpart aren’t similar with respects to their abilities, but whereas Messi isn’t yet sitting in the usual ‘peak years’ of his career, Ronaldo is.
The Madrid forward turns 30 next February, and though fans will hate to even contemplate it, the end of his fantastic life as a footballer will be in sight. At that point it’s conceivable that, barring the emergence of another specimen good enough to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the world, Messi will reign supreme.
Under Enrique he’s already working on evolving into a player who fills roles between the midfield and the attack, rather than as the main striker, as he was under previous coaches. It’s safe to assume that if can master the position then his longevity will increase and as such he will continue to dominate for many years yet.
Regardless of that though the question remains concerning whether not he is already above Pele and Maradona in the standings. In my mind the argument is fairly one-sided in favour of yes.
The perfect player?
In an era where sports science and professional conduct have progressed the game to the point of it being as competitive as it has ever been, Messi is leaps and bounds ahead of every other player bar one.
His appearance in the World Cup final this summer took him one step away from ticking off the only box Maradona has checked that he hasn't, and his Player of the Tournament accolade, however dubious, has served to silence the doubters who prey upon his performances for Argentina.
Thanks to his coming of age on the national front he’s now dangerously close to being the perfect player, or as close to such a thing as is humanly possible. A return of 370 goals in 464 career performances speaks volumes over his consistency, and confirms that he’s never even been close to being a player who promised so much and yet failed to deliver.
At the end of the day it’s a debate that is virtually impossible to properly deconstruct, but the theory that Messi is a better player now than either Pele or Maradona is one that becomes more and more endorsed with each passing season. The only thing acting as an obstacle between him and football’s ultimate crown is Ronaldo, and even he will probably have retired by the time Messi hits his peak.
It’s a risk to say beyond all reasonable doubt that the boy La Masia made into a world-beater will be the best the planet has ever seen. Having said that his whole career has depended upon risks, and it doesn’t seem to have adversely affected him so far.