The long and short of it

This combo of two file photographs at top, Barcelona's Lionel Messi scoring his second goal against Zaragoza during a Spanish La Liga match at the Camp Nou Stadium on November 17, 2012. At the bottom is a June 18, 1972 file photo of Gerd Muller of West Germany scoring against the Soviet Union at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels. Messi scored his 86th goal during the Spanish league game with Betis on December 9, 2012, setting a new record for most goals scored in one calendar year, previously held by Muller.-

Short seems to be synonymous with success. And the diminutive Lionel Messi has gone past yet another football record. Ayon Sengupta dwells on the matter.

Being short has never earned you points in the traumatic world of a school yard. There was and will never be a good place to hide and the titanic tyrant will always sneak you out from behind the garbage bin or any other such unforeseeable sanctuary. And pop goes your lunch money!

But to make matters even in the long run, startlingly, greatness in this world, seems to have only been reserved for these playground miniatures. All the “greats” of history, Alexander, Ashoka, Akbar or Napoleon, were short, but yet had the world reeling at their bejewelled feet.

Charles Allen in his book ‘Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor,’ quotes three important literary sources which describe the monarch as a short, fat man with a bloated face. Ian Worthington in ‘Alexander the Great: A Reader,’ writes, the ruler often used a table to substitute the royal footstool while sitting on the throne as his feet wouldn’t reach the ground. And historical accounts put Akbar’s height at just two inches over five feet, while Napoleon was only a mere four inches lankier than the Mughal Great.

The world just isn’t fair towards the ganglier mortals.

The antique phenomenon (to this writer’s dismay) still seems to trickle down, and is present even in professional playgrounds; it is the short man who rules the lot. Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar or Diego Maradona will never get their hands on the cookie jar, tucked safely on a top shelf, but there are no men in this sphere who can dwarf these greats on their own turfs.

Another of these tiny tots, now, has broken a gigantic record. A diminutive Lionel Messi has run past a 40-year-old milestone for the most goals in a calendar year — the latest landmark in a bewildering career of unmatched accolades.

A brace against Real Betis in a La Liga encounter saw him go past German legend Gerd Muller’s once seemingly unbeatable mark of 85 goals (in 60 games) in one calendar year, achieved in 1972. The Bayern Munich forward, mercifully, was not helped by the dwarf-gene syndrome.

The Argentine, who was the top-scorer in Europe last season, now has an astounding tally of 90 strikes in 2012 from just 68 matches and has a game in hand before the year turns. With already over 300 career goals there is very little (in numbers at least) for the Rosario-born Messi to achieve, except the World Cup crown, and pundits and enthusiasts alike are all too eager to bestow upon him the ‘Greatest of Greats’ tag.

Former Barcelona marvel, Johan Cruyff, however, is not too keen to make any such assumptions. “What everyone should be especially happy about is that every era has its own heroes. Why would one be less than the other? Pele was a hero in his time, I was in my period and Messi’s time is now. He is a joy to behold,” he said.

Messi is a joy and there is no denying that. Besides his ability to score goals on a consistent basis and slither past adversaries, his apparition-like presence and passing have always been prototypical, though less talked about. His 29 assists in the year put him in the top bracket of that leader-board, too. He has been a pure match-winner and of course a wonderful entertainer.

We burden our icons with a whole lot of expectations, often too much (as any Indian cricketer will testify). But deep down all we want is some quality time spent — 90 minutes on a football pitch — and Messi gives us that time, playing full games, almost every game, always giving his best, always trying and always putting a smile on our face.

His humility endears him further. “I don’t consider myself the best in the world,” he said earlier in November. “If I am what they say, I repeat, it is thanks to my team-mates. We have done all this work together. I have the great fortune to play with Xavi and Iniesta. They are players that I admire for their class and influence over the game. I have a very good relationship with them. They have become my friends.”

Undeniably, Barcelona and its assortment of brilliant ball jugglers have had a role to play in the 25-year-old’s fast ascent to the sporting pinnacle.

Both Xavi and Iniesta have mesmerised opponents, opening up space (for Messi to exploit), thus making the Argentine’s job a little easier. The Spanish national team twosome has conscientiously topped the assist charts since the 2008-09 season and has been as important as Messi (if not more) in the Catalan club’s success. The duo has two European and one World Cup crowns alongside numerous club honours.

Genuine contenders for the FIFA Ballon d’Or (and sure shot winners if playing in another era), Xavi and Iniesta, have egged and inspired the younger Messi to greater heights, protecting and shepherding him along, like two well-meaning elder siblings. ‘Messi the Great’ thus acknowledges the work of his very own Seleucus (one of Alexander’s top officers) or Mirza Khan (Akbar’s general).

“It’s a gift to see him play football, but I think he’ll say the same, it’s a team game and he needs his team-mates to help him,” Barca’s sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta, too, correctly points out.

The trio plays as a unit, exchanging passes and positions. They also bamboozle defenders with their intelligence and fast shuffling in short space. Each is equally good and equally creative, but Messi finishes better. The swiftness of his movements, his accuracy, his passing make his team look visibly better and not the other way round (as detractors would like to suggest).

It is true that Messi, outside the Barcelona comfort zone, while playing for Argentina, often has looked bereft of ideas, cutting a forlorn figure. But the leadership armband under the guidance of present manager Alejandro Sabella has improved his play. The skipper has notched 14 goals in 14 games, 12 from nine outings in 2012.

Short at just five feet seven (footballers are giants these days), he truly is already a Great, and has the world glued to his feet.

WHO DONE IT?

Records are meant to be broken, but broken records bring in disputes too. As Gerd ‘Bomber’ Muller’s 40-year old milestone (most goals in a calendar year) fell to the doughty feet of one Lionel Messi, world over clubs and associations cried hoarse, throwing in new names in the hat.

The Zambian Football Association claimed Godfrey Chitalu had scored 107 goals for club and country in 1972. Flamengo soon asserted that Zico had scored 89 goals in 1979 (at least Messi now has surpassed that landmark). Finally, a movement has also started to hand over the mace to Pele for scoring 127 goals in 1959, a fact corroborated by FIFA in the legend’s autobiography.

The Guinness World Records on December 10 anointed Messi as the record holder, though the world governing body FIFA was quick to distance itself from it. “The debate about Godfrey Chitalu was an interesting one last week, and stemmed from a debate that originated in the media, in relation to a purported record held by Gerd Muller, then surpassed by Lionel Messi,” the FIFA media department said in its reply to Sportstar.

“The ‘record’ in question is not a FIFA record, but understandably as the world’s governing body, many people have questioned whether we can provide an answer as to which player has scored the most goals ever in a calendar year. FIFA only has records for our own international football competitions, dating back to the 1930 World Cup, and then related to each subsequent competition that was launched afterwards. With regards to the data of Chitalu, some Brazilians have since claimed that Zico scored more goals in one season, whilst Santos Football Club have records that show Pele scored 110 goals in 1961. There could be players perhaps from pre-War days, since deceased, who may also lay claim to such a record, but all of these claims are impossible to definitively verify against each other, without having all the records available.”

Dr. Alfredo Pöge, founder and president of the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians, Cologne told Sportstar: “The top goal-scorers in a calendar year was created by British boulevard newspapers and one should not take it seriously. The number of national and regional competitions are very different across the globe. There are too many inconsequential games and tournaments in many countries; it’s like a vegetable basket.”

He adds: “The number of goals of Muller (1972) and Messi (2012) are correct figures. But no goal-scoring record (across the world) was maintained from 1921-71 and even now there is no proper mechanism to keep an account of every goal scored throughout the globe. It’s impossible to accurately comment on the matter.”