The mark of greatness

Lionel Messi has scored 38 goals in all competitions this season, enough to place his performance on the same plane as Cristiano Ronaldo’s in 2007-08, a season when the Portuguese struck 42 goals. The Argentinean should be in line for winning the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award this year, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Symbolically, Lionel Messi replaced Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best footballer in popular consciousness when his five-foot-seven frame hung in the air like a seven-foot NBA star to loop a header beyond Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Saar on May 27. A headed goal in a Champions League final win — the very act that won Ronaldo the same debate, the same time last season. This is a rivalry that could polarise football fans for the next decade R 12; Messi is 21 and Ronaldo just three years older.

Nominally right wingers both, Ronaldo and Messi are capable of playing anywhere across the attacking third of the pitch. In terms of physique, temperament and technique, however, they are entirely different creatures. The one quality they share is pace; but again, not the same kind of pace — Ronaldo possesses the straight-line speed of a drag racer, Messi the kneecap-mashing speed through chicanes of a Grand Prix motorcycle racer.

Messi combines pace with the turning radius of a figure skater, the 360-degree awareness of a housefly beneath a rapidly descending human palm, and the elusiveness of an escaped eel in a sushi restaurant. While Ronaldo prefers to confront defenders from a standing start, using his short-burst acceleration to get away after diverting their attention with a rapid medley of step-overs, Messi is a dribbler in the tradition of Stanley Matthews or Garrincha, preferring to run at opponents and get past them using the oldest trick in the book, a trick as old as football itself — dip the shoulder one way, move the ball the other way, unbalance the defender and wriggle past. The sort of dribbling style that gave Manchester United’s Eddie ‘Snakehips’ Colman — who died tragically young in the Munich disaster of 1958 — and Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning outside-right ‘Jinky’ Jimmy Johnstone their nicknames.

Ronaldo’s favourite part of the pitch is the space behind the fullback, into which he bursts in a race of pure speed with the defender, knocking the ball well ahead of his feet, confident that he’ll get to it first.

Messi prefers drifting inside, taking defenders on in a battle of balance and close control, twisting and turning, the ball seemingly stuck to his left foot even when surrounded by three or four opponents at a time.

In Argentina, they call this gambeta, and its greatest practitioner, of course, was Diego Maradona, exemplified by his most famous goal, and probably the most famous goal ever — his second goal in the quarterfinal of the 1986 World Cup against England.

Eerily, Messi somehow managed to repeat, almost frame by frame, that goal, in a Copa Del Rey match against Getafe two years ago. Starting with the escape from a two-man sandwich near the halfway line, through the dash between two more defenders just outside the box, ending with the right-footed finish after going round the prone keeper, touching the ball an identical 13 times on the way.

And yet, dribbling is just one aspect of Messi’s game. Where Sir Bobby Charlton once reminisced about the occasional frustration caused by George Best, as gifted as he was, holding on to the ball too long, it is unlikely that, say, Xavi Hernandez, looking back on this Barcelona side 20 years from now, will say anything of the sort about Messi. In the Champions League final, the Argentinean made 57 passes with a 95 per cent success rate. And if that was a game in which he’s widely agreed to have played superbly, the stats from his allegedly anonymous performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge aren’t too bad either — 53 passes, 87 per cent successful.

Impressive, but are his passes incisive? Do they set up goal-scoring opportunities, or do they merely vanish into Barcelona’s endless spells of possession? He doesn’t even cross the ball that often.

Isn’t he a bit — as blogs and forums all through the latter stages of the Champions League have trumpeted — one-dimensional?

The answers, in order, are: yes, they most certainly do set up goal-scoring opportunities; true, he doesn’t cross too much; but no, that doesn’t make him in the least one-dimensional.

In 42 domestic league and Champions League appearances this season prior to the final, as against Ronaldo’s 44, Messi assisted 16 goals — exactly twice as many as Ronaldo. His final pass, of course, was mostly the through-the-middle, and not the cross from the wing — Ronaldo made 4.8 crosses per game, easily outstripping Messi’s 1.7.

The last statistic, far from indicating Messi’s one-dimensionalness, merely highlights the difference between Barcelona’s and Man United’s styles of play. Messi’s movement inside from the right flank provides space for the relentlessly overlapping right back Dani Alves, a far greater attacking threat than United’s fullbacks. In 44 domestic league and Champions League appearances this season, Alves has made 11 assists. In contrast, Manchester United’s most frequently employed right back John O’Shea has made just four in 42 games and left back Patrice Evra only two in 39.

Onwards to the most important statistic of them all, goal-scoring: Messi has scored 38 in all competitions this season, enough to place his performance on the same plane as Ronaldo’s in 2007-08, a season that yielded the Portuguese 42 goals, and won him the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, a feat Messi should surely achieve this year.

Does that make him the world’s greatest footballer? Probably. For the short-term, certainly. Will he manage to remain at the top of the heap longer than Ronaldinho or Kaka did? Will he sustain his form, and stave off a wounded and dangerous Ronaldo, or whoever the next wonder kid is? Will Messi enjoy injury-free seasons? It was something he achieved this season after he had spent three years nursing repeated damage to his right biceps femoris, a muscle in the back of the thigh. The image of a hobbling, sobbing Messi exiting the pitch at Nou Camp against Celtic last season is still reasonably fresh in his fans’ minds.

An indicator of how transient the title of world’s greatest footballer has become is how rapidly the Ballon d’Or has circulated in recent years. After Marco van Basten’s third win in 1992, only the Brazilian Ronaldo has won it twice. Until and including van Basten, six players won it more than once, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and van Basten thrice. The absence of non-European players from the reckoning until 1995 has a role to play in this — Maradona never won the award despite playing in Europe for a large part of his career — but also — and this is a contentious statement — the absence of unquestionable all-time-greats in recent years, Zinedine Zidane apart.

Unquestionable all-time greats? Well, not only players who dominate individual awards and win major team trophies at club and national level for years at a stretch — Zidane qualifies on this basis — but also the innovators, who take the game a step into the future. Nandor Hidegkuti pioneered the deep-lying centre forward position, Johan Cruyff symbolised Total Football, and Franz Beckenbauer pretty much invented the libero’s role.

Who is the great player-innovator of recent years? Roberto Carlos, for his interpretation of the full-back role? Andrea Pirlo, for creating a demand for deep-lying playmakers? Claude Makelele, for doing the same, and then some, for the ‘Makelele role’ in defensive midfield? Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, as wingers who outscore strikers? The answer will come maybe a decade from now, when we look back at this era with the objectivity that comes from distance. Until then, we may continue debating.