London: The essence of Lionel Messi is not in the bare statistics that now makes him the most prolific scorer of goals in a single year in the history of the game.
It is in the way that he does it. It is the desire of the man who, at age 25 and possibly just reaching the middle of his career, makes every game seem like such a joy, for himself and others. There is a child in Messi that will not grow up, thank goodness.
He was injured last Wednesday. His left knee took the weight of Benfica’s goalkeeper, Artur, in a challenge. As Messi was carted away by the medics, the distress of missing perhaps several months was writ large across his face. When tests proved nothing was broken, merely extensively bruised, Messi did as Messi invariably does. He demonstrated that impulse, that absolute determination, to play the next game.
“He doesn’t need this kind of effort to show how much he loves this sport,” Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova tried to tell us, and to tell him.
Messi wasn’t listening. He was focused on the flight to Seville and on showing his coach Saturday that he was good and ready to play against Betis.
This is a tough opponent. Physically and spiritually, Betis is a team that even Barca finds hard to beat, especially in its tightly packed, emotionally charged Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.
Messi, with another pair of goals Sunday, made sure that Barcelona won the game, 2-1.
And the second took Messi past the all-time record of 85 goals scored in one calendar year, set by the German Gerd Mueller in 1972. Pele’s record of 75 goals, set in 1958, was already out of the equation.
It was now just Der Bomber, as we will forever remember Mueller, and La Pulga, The Flea, as Messi’s countrymen in Argentina refer to him.
If comparisons across different eras mean anything, we made them long ago. If proof were needed that soccer is a team game, the way that Andres Iniesta and Alexis Sanchez passed and moved for Messi reiterated that.
One thing largely overlooked as people obsess about the statistics of Messi’s feat is that he is the very opposite of a one-man attack. He plays for others, and he exudes joy in setting up goals for his teammates. Attempts to count assists are irrelevant because his presence alone — wherever he is on the field, defenders will follow him — opens space for others.
In the aftermath Sunday, Messi tried genuinely to pass some of the praise coming his way to Iniesta. “If the Ballon d’Or is for Andres,” said the Argentine, seeking to deflect journalists’ questions about the player of the year award, “he deserves it for everything he shows us game after game.” Nice try, buddy. But we know what Iniesta is, and we know that if this was a lifetime award for Spain, Iniesta might edge out Xavi Hernandez for that honour.
Apart from his skills and aside from his records and achievements, it always comes down to the thrill of watching Messi in action.
His first son, Thiago, was born last month. Other than getting a haircut, Messi has barely changed or missed a beat since then, and he still has that childlike wonder to him.
We did wonder whether other dimensions to his life might dull the singularity with which he adorns the game — on the field, he is more like a butterfly than a flea. Neither the new love of a son, nor the pain of an injury, seemed to distract him.
That is another aspect to these great goal scorers in their prime. They become such obvious targets for opponents, yet Pele and Mueller escaped serious harm in their careers, as has Messi — so far. God willing, that will continue through the second half of Messi’s merrymaking career.