When ‘The Flea’ is at his best

Lionel Messi, the undisputed first choice for his country, is destined for greater glory. With Argentina having qualified for the 2010 World Cup, he finally gets a chance to prove that he is the true successor to Diego Maradona, writes Ayon Sengupta.

Some 90-odd scribes — 96 to be precise — across the globe are entrusted with the task of naming Europe’s best football player. And like every other year, each of them would conjure up a personal formula of facts, belief and fondness while picking one from the list of 30 for the ‘European Footballer of the Year 2009’ award.

Like every other award, what is intriguing here is the speculation surrounding the choice of Europe’s best player, and not the ultimate crowning. In 2008, a leading U.K. daily had voted Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ as the best book ever, ranked ahead of ‘The Barchester Chronicles’, ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. The splendour of this perfectly audacious statement is that it, most certainly, is neither correct nor a definitive answer. In the case of the ‘Ballon d’Or’, without anything authoritative to go by, we eagerly await the ceremonial festivity to be unleashed in Paris on December 1 to unveil the best footballer in the European continent, and possibly the world. So, let the war of words begin!

For a start, our first litigation revolves around the time frame of performance, and although the ‘Ballon d’Or’ this year is, in theory, given for the calendar year of 2009, it is safe to take for granted that the award takes into account the accolades collected over the footballing season of 2008-09. Over this period two teams by far have exceeded all expectations in the international and club arena. Spain and Barcelona have the highest number of nominees, standing tall with six players each in the list.

Pep Guardiola’s side, with a home and European treble, has correctly been rewarded as its and Spain’s midfield generals, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, feature prominently in the 30-player shortlist. Joining the duo are Camp Nou’s Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry, the just arrived Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the man of the moment, Lionel Messi.

For Spain, Cesc Fabregas, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres and David Villa walk in, in the wake of their impressive Euro 2008 showing and a strong march through the World Cup qualifiers. Amplifying the importance of the UEFA Champions League, Villa is the sole contender who will not be playing for any side in Europe’s premier club competition this season.

Messi, though, seems way ahead of the league.

The organisers, France Football magazine, and the jury will surely take into account the fact that the Argentinean ace has found the net 38 times in 51 outings during the season and was the fulcrum of the Catalan side’s European run, scoring on nine occasions including the all-important and befitting strike against Manchester United in the Champions League final at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. With such impressive statistics backing him, it appears that Messi needs only to show up in Paris to pocket the trophy.

But in reality, the two constants that have kept the heart of two of the best teams this season — Barcelona and Spain — ticking have been the midfield duo of Iniesta and Xavi. The modus operandi of both Barcelona and Spain is based on seductive, rhythmic passing and movement of the ball with domination of possession, allowing for a smoothness that proves impossible to stop. Xavi and Iniesta, largely credited as pivots of this style, unfortunately do not have the numbers in goals like Messi to demonstrate just how important and influential they have been.

So rather than Xavi or Iniesta, Messi’s main competitor this time again will be the reigning European Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.

While Real Madrid’s record summer signing Ronaldo is a cocky and flashy character, Messi, 21, is unremarkable and placid off the field but a livewire and a genius with the ability to improvise on it.

Ronaldo’s season too has been impressive, scoring 26 goals for Manchester United and firing another nine in his opening seven games for Real Madrid. Though it might be a little too late to change the mind of the critics, it would be interesting to note that the two come head-to-head in another El Classico on November 29, two days before France Football announces its winner.

Jumping into the proceedings, the holder too has cast his vote in favour of Messi, the top contender for the Ballon d’Or. “The favourite would be a Barcelona player, because to win an individual trophy like this (Ballon d’Or) you have to take into account things won with the collective,” Ronaldo told France Football. “It could be won by many Barcelona players, such as Xavi, Eto’o or Messi. Clearly, Messi is the favourite, and why not? If he wins it, he deserves it.”

A flashback to the 2008-09 season is in order here. In an away group game against Shaktar Donetsk in the Champions League, the genius was called into action late with his team trailing 0-1. Messi scored two goals, one of them a sublime chip over the keeper, to help Barcelona win the match. And he was to deliver again in a La Liga match against Racing Santander, single-handedly seeing Barca through with a brace. Messi scored in both El Classico matches against arch rival Real and walked away to a standing ovation at Atletico Madrid after scoring a hat-trick. And against Bayern Munich, he left defender Mark van Bommel in tatters after a marauding first 45 minutes during the Champions League quarterfinals. The Dutch was distraught after being bemused and humiliated by a striker just half his size and much less in age.

Messi’s skill, speed, swerve and poise make him one of the most exhilarating and unpredictable dribblers. But put him somewhere else, say at an interview table or in front of the cameras — which are part and parcel of any modern day star’s daily agenda — he will look bland and out of place. This is perhaps because deconstructing his magical moves is akin to asking an adolescent Da Vinci to analyse his precocious talent.

With the ball at his left foot and racing down the right flank, El Pulga (The Flea) is at his best, setting off alarm bells in every defence. “I don’t want to put pressure on Leo, but he is a little — a lot — like Maradona,” says Messi’s team-mate Thierry Henry.

Over the years, a succession of Argentinean players has been hailed as the new Diego Maradona. But very few, however, have been blessed with as much quality as Messi. While the Barcelona star is always at pains to avoid comparisons with El Diego, his goal against Getafe in a Copa del Ray game in April 2007, a virtual carbon copy of Maradona’s second goal against England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, served to emphasise the similarities between the two players. Like his idol, Messi too whizzed past six rivals, running about the same distance (60 metres) before slotting home. On one occasion the legend himself was moved to say: “I’ve seen the player who will take my place in Argentinean football, and his name is Lionel Messi.”

Messi’s tryst with the blue-and-white Argentine jersey began at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands in 2005. He led his team to the winner’s podium, claimed the Golden Shoe as the tournament’s top scorer and also won the Golden Ball as its best player.

In August the same year, his former junior team coach Jose Pekerman, who was in charge of the Argentine senior side, gave Messi his first senior national cap. But just 44 seconds after coming on, the debutant was dismissed for elbowing defender Vilmos Vanczak of Hungary in a friendly in Budapest.

Nonetheless, Messi was back less than two months later to make his first competitive start for the Albiceleste in a 2006 World Cup qualifier against Peru in Buenos Aires. His first goal for his country followed in another friendly against Croatia and by the time he was in Germany, Messi was widely looked upon as one of the tournament’s hottest properties. However, to the surprise of many, he played only a supporting role for Argentina and looked on from the bench as his team lost out to the host in the quarterfinals.

Since then Messi has been the undisputed first choice for his country and is destined for greater glory. However, his fortunes under Maradona nosedived and there was a time when one had fears of a World Cup without Argentina and the magical Messi. But two late goals from fringe players, against Peru and Uruguay, saw the South American team qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And so, The Flea finally gets a chance to redeem himself in national colours and prove that he is the true successor to Diego Maradona.