Sport Soccer

Saturday 3 December 2016

Outside the Box: Describing Messi genius feels like trying to sum up Mozart

Published 01/06/2015 | 02:30

Lionel Messi looks to the heavens after scoring against Athletic Bilbao for Barcelona
Lionel Messi looks to the heavens after scoring against Athletic Bilbao for Barcelona

If you were describing Lionel Messi to somebody who had an interest in football but who had never seen him play before, how would you even begin to go about it?

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Fast? Yes, but there have been faster. Skilful? Yes, but rarely with the sort of stepovers or drag-backs that look spectacular, even if they are often useless during an actual game. Intelligent? Absolutely, but typing the word 'intelligence' next to any footballer into Google is likely to bring up more mocking than praise.

Those of us privileged enough to be watching him are going to have to come up with an answer to pass down the generations because, for all of the highlight reels on YouTube and the millions of words written about him, none do his genius justice.

Perhaps, it's like asking somebody to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and pass on through words, the emotions that can only really be stirred through the ear.

Because watching Messi do things like he did against Bilbao on Saturday night, it's impossible to put it in to words. Instead, another moment of genius simply evokes a peculiar noise of appreciation as though the brain can't come up with a word quickly enough to describe what the eyes have just witnessed and there's just this emission of delight and wonder like a baby whose favourite person has just come into their sight.

One of the great things about sport is how knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next, from those who saw genius to those who weren't even alive when it was happening.

It was 53 years before I was born that Dixie Dean scored 60 goals in a league season. A quarter of a century later, Stanley Matthews finally won the FA Cup in a game when Stan Mortensen got a hat-trick. A few years after that, a guy called Pele came along and won three World Cups between 1958 and 1970.

In the one he didn't win, in 1966, he was kicked up and down various pitches in England. Elsewhere Portugal found themselves 3-0 down against North Korea before Eusebio inspired a comeback and a dog called Pickles found the Jules Rimet trophy.

These stories come from grandparents, parents and other family members but, in around 2060, those of us still above ground will be endeavouring to pass on Messi's brilliance because we are, undoubtedly, living through football history.

Websites like YouTube - or whatever its equivalent is in 50 years' time - will hold in posterity moments like Saturday night's goal against Athletic Bilbao where he takes roughly 16 touches in 13 seconds and makes professional players look like training poles.

But it's unlikely they will capture the feelings inspired by watching Messi against Manchester City earlier this season when, for 20 minutes or so, everyone felt the same wonder as those in Shawshank prison did when Andy Dufresne broke into the warden's office and let the prisoners in the courtyard hear some classical music. Ander Herrera, the Manchester United midfielder, admitted it almost moved him to tears.

In the same way that it's difficult to compare players across eras in other sports - cricketers wearing helmets are far braver facing a 90mph ball than those without - the brilliance of Maradona and Pele must always be recognised in the context of the brutality which their opponents were allowed to dish out.

Had Andoni Goikoitxea been in the Bilbao defence on Saturday - as he was against Maradona in 1983 - it's hard to imagine that Messi would have danced through them with such relative ease.

The goal on Saturday night will justifiably take the headlines and attention but there were so many other little touches of perfection where he found space that didn't seem to exist, or spotted a pass that was clear to only him and the receiver.

And, by the time he finishes his career, it's the latter skill which might just remove any lingering doubt in the debate about who is the greatest player of all time.

Boxers who win titles in different weight divisions have a certain extra credibility but there are growing signs that Messi might make the move from the wide or central forward position in which he has excelled for a decade into a deeper role. And it would be no surprise if he was one of the best we have ever seen in that position too.

On Saturday, Xavi played his final game for Barcelona at the Nou Camp and will retire as one of the greatest Spanish players of all time.

Yet, at the age of 27 - the same as Messi is now - Xavi had won three La Liga titles, one Champions League and nothing with Spain other than a youth Championship. It's not shabby, but not something that would have afforded him the legendary status he now has.

It's difficult to imagine a player like Cristiano Ronaldo dropping into central midfield when the power and pace on which his game is based starts to wane, but for Messi, pulling the strings from a deeper role simply seems like a natural progression.

As well as Messi's goal on Saturday, there were raking crossfield passes and simple movements which prompted another Barcelona attack - reminiscent of Xavi at his best.

On Saturday, Messi will aim for his fourth Champions League title when Barcelona meet Juventus to add to his seven La Liga titles, three Spanish Cups and 423 goals he already has for the greatest club of our generation.

When we're passing on the story to the next generation, it will only tell part of the story.

Tweets of the week

Monday

Didi Hamann (@DietmarHamann)

Terrible news that Bill O'Herlihy has passed away. Outstanding presenter and even better man. Honoured to have worked with him. RIP Bill.

Nicely put by the former German international.

Tuesday

Ashley Young (@youngy18)

Good luck for the future @FALCAO, top pro and person. Enjoyed my time playing alongside you at United

Sympathy from Ashley Young - the final insult to United's misfiring striker.

Wednesday

FIFA.com (@FIFAcom)

#OnThisDay in 1970: @EdelpOficial make it three-successive #CopaLibertadores titles

Nice of the world's governing body to remember the achievement of Estudiantes. Presumably they had nothing else to report on.

Thursday

Paul McShane (@pmacca15)

It's been an emotional rollercoaster right to the end. I'll never forget the way you fans have treated me and I'll be forever grateful.

The Irish international leaves Hull on the back of many, many messages of support from the club's fans.

Friday

Jonas Gutierrez (@elgalgojonas)

Two things I learn from my illness how you can support a player (newcastle fans) and how you leave a player alone (newcastle owner)

A different type of departure message from the Newcastle man by comparison to McShane. Unquestionably he has been through a lot more.

Saturday

Inverness Caledonian Thistle (@ICTFC)

See Celtic...that's how you win a game with 10 men. . . Sorry.

The Scottish Cup winners can't resist a dig at Celtic, who they knocked out controversially in the semi-final. Hopefully, there will be no outrage.

Sunday

Per Mertesacker (@Mertesacker)

She wore! She wore! She wore a yellow ribbon!

She wore a yellow ribbon in the merry month of May .... #BFG @Arsenal .

Not the quickest, or the best, but certainly one of the quirkiest players around enjoys Arsenal's FA Cup victory parade.

The question nobody asked

How many clubs have won more FA Cups  than Arsene Wenger?

Saturday's victory over Aston Villa gave Arsenal a record 12th FA Cup title and meant manager Arsene Wenger equalled the record of six wins as a manager.

That remains one behind Ashley Cole's player record of seven, and Cole seems unlikely to add to his tally, with his career dwindling to a close in Rome.

Wenger hasn't seen Arsenal lose an FA Cup game since they were beaten by Blackburn in February 2013 - Rovers are one of the clubs who are alongside Wenger's personal tally, with six wins in the competition.

They are level with Newcastle on six, one behind a group of three teams - Liverpool, Chelsea and Saturday's defeated opponents, Aston Villa. Those three plus Tottenham (8) and Manchester United (11) are the only five clubs with more FA Cup wins in their entire history than Wenger has managed in his time at Arsenal.

Bet you should have done

Theo Walcott, to score any time in FA Cup final, 5/2

Fresh from his hat-trick against West Brom in the final game of the season, Walcott was high on confidence and is also on the look-out for a new contract.

Given that, in the same scenario last time, he performed superbly, the Cup final was always going to be a chance to prove he was worth it and, once he was named to start, anyone who took the bet would have been deservedly confident of its chances.

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