Six hundred goals and counting.
Lionel Messi passed that almost unprecedented landmark last Sunday in typically magical style, swinging a free-kick past the grasping gloves of Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak to take Barcelona to the brink of the Spanish La Liga title. It was yet another unforgettable moment in the career of a player who has constantly pushed back the boundaries of the impossible and redefined what it means to star in professional football.
Judged by cold numbers, Argentina’s captain has already assured his place in history. Messi’s 600 goals have come in 747 games, a rate not far off a mythical goal a game. Along the way he has picked up eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues and a record five Ballon d’Or crowns.
Indeed, Barcelona’s domination of the sport in Europe over the last decade is almost unimaginable without the image of the club’s diminutive genius, wandering across the pitch clad in the number 10 shirt once made famous by Diego Maradona and bursting into action to devastating effect.
But bare statistics can never tell the full story. On paper, the comparisons made with Messi’s ready-made ‘rival,’ Cristiano Ronaldo, can perhaps be justified. But a cursory look at both players at their best shows up the connection for the fallacy as it is: Messi is on another planet, playing a different game than the Real Madrid man.
Ronaldo, make no mistake, is an extraordinary goal-scorer, and merits all the praise and adoration in which the Portuguese striker so clearly revels. But he is merely a talented exponent of the game, his feats liable to be matched or even overtaken in the decades to come. It is difficult to imagine at this point any player who could come close to what Messi has achieved.
Leo does not merely excel at the game of football. He has transformed it. Quiet, introverted and visibly uncomfortable in the public eye, nothing about the little Rosario native suggests stardom. But when he steps out onto the pitch Messi is in his natural habitat, an arena in which he feels completely in control, and confident of his ability to do things mere mortals could not even conceive.
Like fellow adopted Catalan Pablo Picasso, he learned to perfection the rules and conventions of football only to flout them in spectacular fashion, deconstructing the sport and rebuilding it in his own image. The result is a talent which is abstract and unique, impossible to replicate, a combination of physical, mental and technical ability unmatched on planet Earth. As Argentine World Cup winner Jorge Valdano points out, often his compatriot need not even break out of a trot in order to impose himself.
“The best in the world is Messi; the second best is Messi, injured,” Valdano explained back in 2013. “He was born to play football, he is the first genius of the 21st century. He is incomparable.”
Five years later and the former Real Madrid manager’s praise had grown even more effusive: “Barcelona played well [against Atlético] but Messi is the one who always puts venom into their play. If Barca win La Liga, never before would he have played such a big part in a title as now. He does not even need to run, he is an observer. He walks and chooses the moment in which to make the difference.”
It is ironic, then, that perhaps the last place on earth to fully embrace Messi-mania is his own home nation. Raised on memories of Diego Maradona and the little genius’ efforts in dragging the Selección almost singlehandedly to World Cup glory, Argentina fans have time and again grown impatient in waiting for Leo to deliver that same success.
No matter that pound-for-pound the national team, its spectacular attacking line-up aside, has been inferior to the 1986 vintage for the captain’s entire career: when the Albiceleste fall flat, the finger is often pointed at their star player. It is something that has exasperated Messi over the years, culminating in his aborted international retirement in 2016 that, thankfully for Argentina and for the entire football world, lasted a matter of weeks before he heeded the call to return.
It is World Cup glory that would finally convince his few remaining doubters that he is the finest player ever to pick up a football. And while Messi has nothing to prove, a few more goals in Russia to add to his six centuries would cement his place as a true alltime great without parallel past, present or future.