independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Lionel Messi: The little emperor, the god of small things

The great champions of world sport are often referred to as giants but it is two midgets that have loomed large on my personal sporting horizon in recent years.

Messi and Manny, Leo and Pacquiao, have been in my top three favourites across all sports, the third being that other true original, the artist known as Ronnie O'Sullivan.

In the case of two of them, the pleasures they bestow on their admirers have been severely and frustratingly rationed as they've got older. O'Sullivan these days only comes out to play when he feels like it. But happily he felt like it at the Crucible last April/May – and how. He was breathtakingly brilliant that fortnight and the winning of his fourth world title was, for me, one of the joys of the year.

By poignant contrast, rumours of Pacquiao's decline had been gathering momentum for some 18 months and last December they were definitively proven.

Pacquiao was fighting for only the second time in 2012. He'd lost his world welterweight title to Timothy Bradley in June. But those of us who were refusing to countenance his deterioration had plenty of time to nurture our denial.

The Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez forced us to face reality at the end of the sixth round that night in Las Vegas. There the marvel of modern boxing lay stretched on the canvas, face down and arms by his side, for all the world like a sleeping child. Pacquiao had been knocked out cold.

It was, and it remains, an image to sadden anyone who felt anything for this remarkably charismatic fighting machine. For his legions of fans worldwide it was doubly sad because the affection for him was unconditional.

If any man is the embodiment of a fighting heart, it is Pacquiao. He began boxing for pay in his native Philippines in January 1995. He had just turned 16. In the following decade-and-a-half he cut a swathe through the fight game, winning world titles in an unprecedented eight weight divisions, from flyweight all the way up to light middle.

In full flow he was an exhilarating sight, relentless as a soldier ant, a walking firestorm of punches. The hand speed was terrifying, delivering flurries faster than the human eye could count or compute. And they came not in ones and twos but in volumes, multiple barrages.

The impact wasn't usually diminished by inefficiency, the wild flailing more commonly seen in all-action fighters. Instead the speed was complemented by fearsome precision. Over and over he would unleash his combinations and land them. Finally there was the power. For a man who weighed between nine and ten stones, and who stands at 5' 6 1/2", he hit like the proverbial mule.

And against Marquez there were glimpses of his vintage prime. More than glimpses, in fact; there were sustained spasms of that devastating speed and power. Marquez had him down in the third but Pacquiao replied with hammering shots in the fifth and sixth that bloodied and withered the Mexican. He was in trouble; Pacquiao was narrowly ahead on all three scorecards. But with one second left in the sixth, Marquez produced a perfect right hand shot that nailed his opponent flush in the middle of the face.

Manny woke up to a different world. His aura was gone for good. He'd had his indestructible years; he has his mortal ones now. He is 34 but he will fight on because there will be too much money on offer not to, and because he apparently burns his way through fortunes as well.

The other 5' 6 1/2" giant meanwhile continues merrily on his way, smashing records, scoring goals for fun, winning hearts and minds all over the planet. It is no exaggeration to say that Lionel Messi is a force for good in the world.

At 25 he is already ranked alongside Pele and Maradona and no one else. It is all behind him and all still ahead of him. His new world record of 91 goals in 69 games, for the 2012 calendar year, is some sort of statistical violation. It defies all actuarial calculations and mathematical probabilities.

Perhaps the age produces the man. Like all modern sports, the preparation in football has never been more scientific. The research and development has never been more sophisticated in the areas of fitness, nutrition and psychology. Managers and coaches have access to banks of data and technology when drawing up their elaborate defensive strategies. Top defenders these days are exceptionally quick and agile.

But just like modern antibiotics seem to generate strains of superbacteria that can defeat them, Messi can outwit and outplay the best opponents that the industry can muster.

People who have worked with him at Barcelona FC testify to his obsession with the game. He is completely immersed in it. He apparently has no life beyond field and family. It is such a one-dimensional existence that a level of human dislocation might be expected: some manifestation of emotional immaturity or excess ego or stunted personal growth.

Seemingly not. By all accounts he's a very nice bloke. He possesses, says his former manager Pep Guardiola, "a calm and centred personality". Really, it is too much to ask of one human being.

As of January 2013, Ronnie remains in hibernation and Manny, alas, is no longer what he once was.

Messi is out on his own now and going – not boldly but rather politely – where no man has gone before. It is tempting to put an 'a' and 'h' at the end of his name: Lionel Messiah, the little emperor, the god of small things.

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