Here’s the first fact that any casual sports fans faking his way through the World Cup this summer needs to know: Lionel Messi is the finest soccer player in the world. Other than a shrinking island of delusion in England, where the case is made for Wayne Rooney, virtually no one disputes this. Even his erstwhile rival for the title, Cristiano Ronaldo, recently admitted that Messi is king.
His status is deserved: the diminutive winger serves as the spear's head for Barcelona, the best club team of the decade, and arguably the best in a generation. Messi is the reigning World Player of the Year, and is on track to win the award again in 2010. In the just-completed 2009-10 season, he led the ultra-competitive Spanish league with thirty-four goals, which ties a club record. Taking into account tournament play, Messi netted forty-seven on the campaign for Barcelona, which likewise equals a record. He also finished second in assists, the only one of the league’s top goal scorers to finish in the top ten.
On the field, Messi’s feats are frequently breathtaking. He scores via deep cannon blasts, nutmegs delivered with laser-like precision, and playful chips over the head of onrushing goalkeepers. Messi is the sort of player who can be bottled up for eighty-five minutes, but with one opportune touch in the waning moments of a tight contest, his scoring instinct is instantly reestablished. Or, he can explode for goal after goal after goal, as he did in the second leg of this year’s Champions League quarterfinal against Arsenal, during which he netted four unanswered to bring his team back from a one-goal deficit, and in the process utterly abused a world-class team.
One can also point to more trivial reasons to embrace Messi. Opposing defenses often try to whack him to pieces, yet, though built like a Hobbit, Messi is generally impervious to physical attack. He also comes off as a genial guy; whereas Ronaldo's facial expression seems to hold everyone else in scorn even after a brilliant goal or a huge win, Messi's perennially invites you to celebrate with him.
There are, then, very few flaws in either his game or his athletic persona. At this point, the biggest problem for Messi fans seems to be that we are running out of superlatives with which to capture his genius. Saying he's the best in the world is beyond trite, not unlike declaring coffee a delightful drink in the morning hours. Calling Messi the best ever suffers not only from being premature (he’s only 22); somehow, after hearing similar proclamations from Barcelona’s president and its starting goalkeeper in the past several weeks, it too is insufficiently hyperbolic to express Messi's greatness.
Given that, what is the truly effusive commentator to do? Messi's coach on the Argentina national team, Diego Maradona (judged by many to be the best player in history), recently went with a divine metaphor, saying that these days Messi is just kicking the ball around with Jesus Christ. Columnist Phil Ball, after taking in a Barcelona game at a Spanish bar, reported a reaction lodged in jurisprudence, with one prevailing opinion arguing that Messi’s talent crossed the line of legality, and that he should be banned from the sport. Luis Figo, himself a former World Player of the Year, evidently considers Messi a substitute for Viagra, saying that "watching Messi play football is a pleasure, it's like having an orgasm. It's an incredible pleasure."
The present level of excitement, sexual and otherwise, is such that one wonders what will happen if Messi leads his talented but heretofore underachieving Argentina squad to victory in the World Cup, which begins in June. Because, for all the excitement over Messi's exploits on the club circuit, the World Cup is to soccer superlative what Davos is to economic pontificating: the genuine practitioners are obligated to take it up a notch.
But seeing as Messi has already been compared to the Messiah and sexual climax, where does one go from here?
Announcer Víctor Hugo Morales’ timeless reaction of Maradona's famous 60-yard dance through the English defense in 1986, which culminated in what is widely considered the finest goal in the history of soccer, is illustrative (author’s suggestion: try reading the following in the loudest, most hysterical mental voice you can muster):
"Goal! Goal! Holy God! Long live soccer! Great goal! Diego! Maradona! This makes you cry, forgive me! Maradona on a memorable run, an all-time historic play! Cosmic comet, what planet did you come from to leave so many Englishmen in your wake? For an entire country to become a clenched fist screaming for Argentina? Argentina 2, England 0! Diego, Diego, Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you God, for soccer, for Maradona, for these tears...”
The response is so effective because the emotion is both palpable and insane; indeed, the screaming Morales was quite literally moved to tears. While Messi certainly provokes strong feelings today, his admirers, burdened by both reality and expectations of normal conduct, fall far short of the color commentator. The recent declarations of Messi’s greatness have been far too measured, too objective, and too detached to stand up in a World Cup context.
The lesson is that, in addressing this Messi, we need to be prepared to separate ourselves from any scrap of normalcy, logic, and reality. If Messi submits a performance in South Africa comparable to Maradona’s in Mexico twenty-four years ago, it won’t be enough for Figo to compare him to sex; he needs to be spontaneously moved to perform the act, preferably in public and screaming as loudly as possible throughout.
The acclamatory possibilities abound, so be creative, but don’t limit yourself to hailing Lionel Messi by traditional sports terminology, i.e. adjectives like “outstanding”, “great”, or “sublime.” Merely calling him really, really, really good is just, well, kind of boring.