Celebrating Messi, and 15 years of reliable, repeatable excellence

If you say that you saw it coming, you’re a liar.

If you even remotely try anything like intimating that you knew, don’t even try.

Fifteen years ago today, a kid named Lionel Messi subbed on for Deco, late in a 1-0 win against Espanyol. And if we really think about it, even that was amazing. The hype was there. So much hype. Think of how much there was. It was in the pre-football Twitter era, but the hype was still unimaginable. Everyone had heard about what he could do, what he might do, and the pressure had to have been stupefying. Everything could have resulted in pressure-packed failure just as easily as it resulted in what we have all been lucky enough to witness, which is Lionel Messi becoming the greatest player in the history of the game, right before our eyes.

In the here and now, in the wake of the mind-boggling statistics, you can focus on two moments: the first came when the ball ponged around and the debutante, number 30, seemed to already know what was going to happen to it. It was only alert goalkeeping that kept him from scoring. The other moment came when a pass fell to the diminutive player, and his touch was flawless, a perfect thing that allowed him to start running at the defense before anyone had a moment to get fully set, that period of grace that the control of ordinary players allow defenses.

Yet everything about Messi is hindsight, because who in their right mind would have been able to predict anything about what he has done for his team, his club, his country and the game he elevates every time he strides onto a pitch. Every sport gets only a few players who come along and change everything, that redraw what is considered possible. “Everything was different” is an overused phrase, especially in athletics. There is a small list of athletes that come along that make their sport a before and an after. Michael Jordan is one, Serena Williams is another. So is Simone Biles, likewise Tiger Woods. You could make arguments for others, but that small list contains people about who there is no argument, no caveats. They do things that make us reconsider what we see, what we expect from others. It isn’t even accomplishment, though that certainly adds to the luster. But greatness is defined by possibility, by foresight through the eyes of a seemingly supernatural performer, even as we assess greatness in hindsight.

Woods hit shots because he could. His mind worked with his body to make things that other golfers would never even consider, viable. Jordan made shots because there was something about him and gravity that changed everything. Biles has moves named after her, and one was downgraded because the governing body was worried other, mortal gymnasts will try it and injure themselves. Williams hit shots from places that nobody else dared consider. And then there’s Messi.

Football had other greats before him, players like Pele and Maradona, who held the world in thrall with their amazing skill. But Messi was different. He wasn’t different because of amazing feats, though he has countless ones. He wasn’t different because of astonishing skill, though he has it in abundance. The thing that makes Lionel Messi so astonishing, even above all of the astonishing things that he does, is that he does it all the time. He is so reliably great that people who assess such things, who award subjective gilded baubles don’t know what to do with him. He can’t win ALL the time, can he? And someone else gets a gift that they kinda deserve, in the Mortal Division.

Greatness is one of those things that is, like the idea of an athlete making everything different, not fully understood. A player can also be great and not change everything. Sport is filled with those, as are halls of fame. Greatness is reliable and consistent. Greatness is when a player does something that makes you say, “I didn’t think that was possible,” then does it again. And again. Opponents try to stop them, and they keep doing it. Tactics change, the game changes around them but what doesn’t change is them. And they keep doing it. It is stunning to think that Messi has almost averaged a goal for every Barça appearance (604 to 692). It is stunning to think that every year he improves. It is stunning to think that he is the game’s best dribbler, free kick taker, passer, shooter and goal scorer. Every year.

We don’t even know what to say any more about what he does. Is something extraordinary when it’s consistent and repeatable? That is what the game-changers such as Messi force us to ask about them and how they perform. He makes a run, leaves multiple defenders for dead and scores a golazo, and it isn’t even among the ten best times that he’s done that particular thing. A corkscrewing free kick eludes a flying keeper and nestles into the far upper corner of the net, and we are forced to rank the times that he has done that.

Of all the things that can be said to define Messi, from loyalty to work rate to ravenous hunger for sustained team excellence, it is reliability that is the most amazing, when you really stop to think about it. Statistics are one thing, but those are just numbers. The effect of Messi is quantifiable for us by what happens when he gets near the ball: our breathing changes, we slide forward on our chairs, adrenaline begins pumping in anticipation of something that would be magical for others but that is, for him, a day at the office. He’s so reliable that it seems weird when he does NOT create magic. Sometimes even he seems bewildered by it, like two plus two suddenly doesn’t equal four, and how in the hell did that happen?

Failure is a part of sport, so inextricable that we expect it. Messi doesn’t, and leads us to not expect it. It’s another thing that we often don’t consider when we talk about the effect that he has for us. How many of us were already celebrating when he got the ball on the doorstep in Rome, right at the death? In thinking about the times in which he let his team down, let us and our stratospheric expectations down, there aren’t many, which makes what he does even more remarkable. Messi’s most remarkable thing is that he doesn’t seem remarkable. The shame is that such a thing will also diminish his greatness. Just because he does something so often, doesn’t mean it’s possible. We should think long and hard about that, because even though it’s been 15 years of sustained astonishment, the time is drawing near when the game, when our lives and our pulse rates when a player approaches the ball, all return to normal. That is going to seem weird.

But for now, hot on the heels of a sixth Golden Boot, a statistical bauble that subjectivity and brilliance fatigue can’t take away, let’s consider 15 years, so many wonderful years, not of magic but of something even more remarkable: sustained magic. Trick after trick, time after time, match after match.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.