Becoming a legend in your own lifetime is a special achievement. Doing so while still playing is something else. Managing to accomplish it while still being the best player on the planet? That takes Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona forward won his first award of the season before he had even started a game – collecting the FIFA Best trophy back in late September. On Monday evening in Paris, Messi walked away with the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time in his extraordinary career.
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Not everyone was convinced. Some felt Virgil van Dijk’s contribution to Liverpool’s Champions League success deserved greater recognition. The theory owes a little to logic but a lot to fatigue too. This is the numbness caused by the numbers of Messi.
There have been 46 goals for club and country already in 2019 but for him this is seen as just another year. With good reason. It is just another year by his incredible standards. He has hit the 45-goal mark every single year of this decade.
If Messi did that we would be raving about it, they tend to say. But Messi did do it. He has been doing it all this time and he continues to do it. As recently as Sunday he delivered his latest masterclass, scoring the only goal of the game to beat Atletico Madrid late on.
Diego Simeone, that most fierce of competitors, could only applaud.
Injury did delay his impact at the start of this season but that has acted more like a handicap system than a genuine hindrance. Messi had played only 90 minutes of football in La Liga prior to October – giving the competition a six-week head start. They needed more.
He is already the second highest scorer in the competition and out on his own for assists. He ranks second for dribbles and top for through-balls. All this despite missing five matches completely and half of two more. Expect him to top each of these lists within a fortnight.
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In European competition, he was the top scorer in last season’s Champions League, a feat he has achieved five times before. This season there have only been two goals so far but three assists and some 39 completed dribbles. Nobody else has managed more than 20.
These statistics bear repeating because romanticism is inevitable with Messi. Watching him glide by his marker or find that passing angle that looked impossible even from the vantage point of the stands is to watch an artist at work. But this is more than art. It is science too.
Music, for example, might be a question of personal taste but this particular artist’s genius is not a matter of opinion. The facts are there for all to see. More free-kick goals in the past nine seasons than any other club let alone any other player. More successful through-balls since the start of last season than anyone in Europe. Twice as many as anyone else in Spain.
This highlights the twin elements to his greatness. The great scorer and the great provider. Combine Sergio Aguero and David Silva then double it. If Messi did nothing but score goals he would be a great. But even if he did not score goals at all he would still be a great too.
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The 10th league title of his career was confirmed in April – he came off the bench to score the winner, naturally. Yet, the campaign ended in anti-climax with Liverpool’s stunning comeback in the Champions League and a shock defeat to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final.
That semi-final disappointment at Anfield underlined how high expectations of Messi have become. Over the two legs, nobody on either side scored more goals, nobody created more chances for their team-mates and nobody completed more dribbles than he did. Somehow, the prevailing view afterwards was still that he might have done more to win it.
In truth, there were times when the vibrancy of Liverpool’s game – the speed and the energy of it all – left Barcelona’s players looking lethargic, Messi among them. While the criticism was unduly harsh, it was a reminder that even the icons cannot defy time forever.
So how long can Messi endure?
He is 32. Still brilliant but mortal, as his recent injury reminds us. He was never a machine whatever the numbers might have suggested. This vulnerability, this knowledge that all good things must come to an end, has added an extra hook to watching Messi now.
Nobody should need another reason but for those outside of Spain, in particular, each opportunity to witness Messi’s talents when the show next rolls into town is tinged with the sad thought that this glimpse of greatness might prove to be the last.
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December 7, 2019, 5:00pm
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Catch him if you can. Make sure your children see him. Your grandchildren if possible. Because while football always finds a way of producing new heroes, there can be no guarantee that there will be another like this one coming along any time soon.