When the career of Lionel Messi is done and dusted, one of the most remarkable things will be, assuming he sees out his contract at Barça until the end, that he will have left the game as a one-club player.
It happens rarely at the highest level, where money and transfer offers fly about like stray shots, untold millions being bandied about to lure superstars hither and yon. The legendary Paolo Maldini only played for AC Milan, and it was remarkable. He was also a defender, in the time when CBs weren’t chased like strikers or midfielders. It was still remarkable. When Iniesta retires, he will have played his entire career, from snot-nosed tyke weeping from homesickness to ephemeral titan, for a single club.
These players are anachronisms, a throwback as worthy of being put in a glass case as a black leather football boot. “People used those?”
A piece was posted at Goal.com today that stated Messi won’t be considered the greatest player ever because he renewed at Barça, rather than going somewhere else to somehow prove yet again that he is — well — the greatest player ever. Quotes from Pele were included, because Pele is always willing to say that anyone and everyone isn’t as great as he was, but the supposition remains flawed for a very simple reason: 2+2=4.
No matter where you do that math, in Chicago, Barcelona, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, the result doesn’t change. Math is an objective absolute. This week, Rio Ferdinand, one of the greatest defenders in the game’s history, spoke about playing against Messi in two Champions League finals for Manchester United. The video is illustrative, because it showed a great player in awe of another great player, as he discussed how it didn’t matter what they did against Messi. He obliterated them. Ferdinand added that everyone on his team felt that without Messi, they would have beaten Barça.
Few other sports have something like the Champions League, where the best teams are placed into a tournament to settle which team is the best. Scoff at the format, take issues with the draw and how it is structured, but it takes the champions, the best teams from every league, and has them square off. In that tournament, Messi has reduced team after team, player after player, to rubble. He has scored buckets of goals, created countless moments, made magic — magic that isn’t diminished in any way because he stayed with one club. Though a subjective quality, magic is an objective reality. We are left stunned by it, flummoxed that something we knew couldn’t happen, just happened. How did the magician know the card? Where did that plane go? How did the shirt end up over there? How did that pass get to Jordi Alba?
The struggle that Messi presents us with is that he doesn’t have a standard. He is his own standard. Back when this space scored players after matches, Messi had his own standard. Every player did, but Messi’s level was such that you couldn’t evaluate him in anything like a normal context. Use the same standard that you use for other players, and Messi would rate a 10 every match. There has been, for me, only one other player in sport like that: Michael Jordan.
The luck of a life spent watching great athletes do wonderful things has been made even more amazing by having been able to see both Jordan and Messi from the outset, new players at the top level. As with Messi, there is debate over whether Jordan is the best player basketball has ever seen, even as with Messi, there shouldn’t be. Other players have scored more, done this or that and the other, but there are certain players who become a standard, even as when we consider their quality, using them as a standard is absurd.
There is no “next Jordan,” just as there will never be a “next Messi.” You get one. And even at foolish, weak moments where we doubt them and they prove us to be fools, this remains true. I am not a fan of Messi, or any other player. It is just how I function as a journalist and watcher of the game. But you don’t need to be a fan of Messi to understand what he does, don’t need to have a Twitter name that incorporates Messi to get your mind around the unreal reality of this man who has changed football by his presence.
The NBA was its own ecosystem, and the best at what it does. So unlike football, there is no notion of a better or lesser league. In football, the Premiership is considered by many to be the ultimate. Like New York in the great Frank Sinatra song, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Messi is great, but can he do it on a winter Wednesday in Stoke? Why Stoke? Well, it’s in the Premiership, where everything is more. The winters are colder, the men are manlier, the goals worth more, somehow. Stoke. If Messi doesn’t go to the Premiership, how will we know that he is the greatest player, when he hasn’t been tested in the most brutal crucible?
Because greatness is absolute. Only those who don’t watch football closely or only watch one league don’t understand that Spain is the best league in the world right now, and not just because it has made the Champions League and Europa League into something like intramural tourneys. The average standard of play in La Liga is higher than any league in the game — ball skills, movement with the ball, tactical structure, you name it. Some say the Premiership is more competitive, because they don’t watch Malaga socking Real Madrid in the mouth, or Deportivo beating Barça. They only see the gaudy point totals of the winner, absent the struggle.
So it is with Messi, a player who exists for so many in highlight reels rather than grim reality. The beauty of Messi is, yes, the goals and moments of wonder. But the beauty of Messi is also the semi-violent omnipresence, the brutal effect that he has on opposing teams. We can see it in a Barça player running with the ball. Even though that player has the ball, people are looking for Messi. What is he going to do? Where is he? That reality exists at every stadium Barça enters. He turned a PSG Champions League match just by showing up. He entered, and everything changed.
You don’t need to transplant that to understand how magnificent it is. Neymar moved to PSG, to be the man. He left Barça, going from the tight confines of Simeone’s Atleti to the open spaces of Caen, or Guingamp, or Monaco. Yes, PSG is a waystation before his final destination, but truly great players don’t shirk a challenge, don’t visit a lesser league. What’s the value of that? Pep Guardiola isn’t setting a standard in the Premiership because he bought a bunch of players. He’s setting a standard because his team is playing the game in a way that hasn’t ever been executed in that league, and nobody knows yet how to deal with it. Guardiola is, once again, changing the game, making an entire professional sport at the highest level adapt to his machinations.
He is, only now, considered a great coach by many, because he is taking the Premiership apart just for fun. And that same thinking is what is behind the notions that Messi needs to play for another club, another league so that somehow, his greatness can be truly assessed.
A Ferrari is a fantastic machine no matter where you’re driving it. “Ah, but you can’t do a World Rally stage with it, so what kind of a car is it, really?” A great sports car, is what it is. Are the Messi goals somehow diminished because he has never chosen to strike them while wearing a Chelsea or United shirt? What if the Messi goals are greater precisely beCAUSE he has only struck them in a Barça shirt, struck them for a team for which everyone knows who is going to get the ball at the key moment, and structure elaborate ecosystems to keep one player from killing them.
And Messi kills them. What about that standard needs to exist in another ecosystem to become more valid, to burnish the greatness of that player? “He made Boateng topple like a giant redwood, sure, but let’s see him do that in Schalke.” It doesn’t make sense, because just like 2+2=4, the result is the absolute. Valencia on the weekend was ready to celebrate. They had come up with a system that was battling Barça to a standstill, and Messi was having an off match. This was going to be …
One pass, over distance, when everybody knew what was coming and still, he did it. Lots of NBA players could hit three-pointers. Michael Jordan did it in the NBA Finals, being defended by the opponent’s best player, in a single, compressed capsule of excellence that is still stupefying to witness. Would that moment have had more value had Jordan chased the money and fame in a bigger market? “He didn’t do it in New York or Los Angeles,” some had the temerity to say, even back then. Jordan didn’t care. The greats don’t.
We won’t truly understand how great Messi is until he is gone from the game, and our lives are a little bit emptier as we watch the game we love so much. There won’t be that intake of breath as we slide forward on our seats when he gets the ball, there won’t be those moments of beauty, of awe-inspiring greatness. Messi is the greatest player that the game has ever seen not because of the World Cups he hasn’t single-handedly dragged him team to, or because he hasn’t done it in Chelsea or Manchester or Stoke. He is the greatest player that the game has ever seen because he excels in any situation, against any opponent, in any condition. He excels so much that when he doesn’t, it’s an aberration. Messi is a standard, an element. Messi just is. Nothing else matters.