He is the greatest football player since Kaka and Ronaldinho. At the tender age of 23, he has yet to make his mark in a World Cup for Argentina, but if form holds, he is destined to earn career achievement comparisons with Maradona, Brazilian ace Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Pele. He has already won the FIFA Player of Year Award and is trailblazing Barcelona's campaign for the 2010-2011 La Liga title against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo. His name is Lionel Messi and he is in the midst of redefining the meaning of footballing greatness.
In early adolescence, Messi struggled with a medical condition related to a growth deficiency that required nightly injections of a growth hormone. Unable to afford the treatment in Argentina, his family accepted an offer from Barcelona to pay for Messi's medical bills as part of his induction into Barca's youth team and moved from their home in Rosario, Argentina to Spain in 2000. Messi shone as a youth player for Barcelona and since then, has accompanied the team on its road to La Liga titles in 2004-2005, 2005-2006, 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. He finished the 2009-2010 year with 34 La Liga goals in 35 appearances for Barcelona on their way to the title as he picked up awards for the Balloon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award in the same season. Messi shone at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 but failed to score, though he recently scored for the first time against arch-rivals Brazil with a brilliant injury time goal to sink Brazil and hand Mano Menezes his first loss since taking charge of the Brazilian national football team.
Fans and pundits compare him most frequently with Diego Maradona because of their prodigious dribbling skills, diminutive stature, low center of gravity and shared Argentine heritage. Maradona himself has called Messi his "successor" on more than one occasion, though one could be forgiven for wondering whether Maradona has reconciled himself to Messi's greatness given the former's inability to realize Messi's powers at the World Cup 2010 or even in South American World Cup qualifying. Regardless of whether there exists an unspoken rivalry or jealousy on Maradona's part about Lionel Messi, a closer look at the two players reveals a number of differences at the level of technique, skill and overall style.
Effortlessly, Messi glides past one defender and then another, weaving his way through defenses by means of absurdly quick changes of direction that leave defenders in the box stunned by the speed of his change of pace. Feigning a movement in one direction and then heading in another in a flash, he leaves defenders awestruck as he dashes by them on his way toward goal. His dribbling skills rank with Maradona, Garrincha, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho save for the naturalness of his movement, and the way he blows by players as if the field were a chess game where the pawns on the opposing side offer no resistance. And in all this, there is a seeming lack of exertion on Messi's part as he plots his path toward goal through a throng of defenders. Whereas Brazilian ace Ronaldo and Maradona muscled their way past defenders like bulls with speed and supreme ball control skills, Messi draws on his deep positional awareness to find his teammates and the ball and the back of the net. True to his look as a band groupie or a Harry Potter-like, contemplative nerd, his power is cerebral and based on a keen tactical awareness of the positions of his teammates and the opposition. And in keeping with his South American heritage, the other component of Messi's magic derives from his dribbling abilities and clinical finishing power. The ball stays glued to his laces until he unloads it onto his left foot and dispatches a shot with clinical precision that rarely misses the target. Simply put, Lionel Messi is the best finisher in the game today, playing at a league above even the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Didier Drogba and Luis Fabiano.
He scores 3 and 4 goals per match with a frequency rarely performed by strikers such as Romario, Ronaldo, Raul and Gabriel Batistuta, all of whom were accustomed to braces but far less frequently to hat-tricks and beyond. On March 10, 2007, Messi scored a hat-trick in the El Clasico match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In 2009, he repeated the feat with a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid. On April 7, 2010, Messi single handedly destroyed Arsenal by scoring 4 goals in a 4-1 rout of the Gunners. The 2010-2011season has witnessed two Messi hat-tricks already, one against Sevilla in a 4-0 victory on August 21, 2010 and another against Almeira in an 8-0 Barcelona victory on November 20, 2010.
Messi's most touted goal so far was against Getafe on April 18, 2007, where he defeated five Getafe players plus the goalkeeper in a goal that drew widespread comparisons with Diego Maradona's second goal against England in the World Cup of 1986. But he has scored brilliant goals since then against more experienced and tactically savvy defenses such as those of Valencia, Zaragoza, Real Madrid, Arsenal and most recently, Brazil, that have ironically drawn less media attention than the goal against Getafe because of the sheer effortlessness of his accomplishment in putting the ball in the back of the net. Messi's effortlessness conceals his raw talent and uncanny positional awareness of how to navigate through mazes of defenders and score with comparative ease. Ironically, however, the world would do well to watch the spectacle of his career unfold with baited breath since—beneath his modesty, shyness and music groupie-like appearance—we are witnessing one of the greatest football players of all time soar toward the peak of his career. The next test of Messi's greatness will be how he handles Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo at this season's first El Clasico on November 29. Given how their flagship striker is in the hottest of form having scored in 9 straight Barcelona games, Barca fans could be forgiven for expecting Messi to shred Real Madrid's defense into tatters at the Nou Camp on Monday.