Such has been the praise that Lionel Messi has attracted during the course of his stellar career that there is not much more that can be said about him. Reflecting on that problem, his current national team coach Alejandro Sabella said: “It’s got to the stage where you have to invent a new adjective for him.”
Blessed with eagle-eyed vision, sublime technique and lightning acceleration, the left-footed wizard patrols the area in and around the box, detecting defensive chinks that are invisible to mere mortals. His gift for shifting through the gears, skipping past opponents and finding the back of the net, both from open play and dead-ball situations, has brought him so many goals that it is easier to list the records he has yet to break than the ones that have already fallen to him.
The story of his early days has become the stuff of legend. Born in Rosario, he played for Newell’s Old Boys’ youth teams before moving to Spain at the age of 13 and earning a trial with Barcelona. “I spotted him straightaway,” said Carles Rexach, the head of the culé youth set-up at the time. “As a symbolic gesture, I made him sign for the club on the back of a napkin.”
Nicknamed La Pulga (The Flea) on account of his slight frame, Messi underwent growth hormone treatment, with every effort being made to nurture and prepare him for his ascension to the first team. Since making his debut against Espanyol in 2004, Messi has won trophy after trophy with Barça and a succession of individual awards, including four consecutive FIFA Ballons d’Or.
His well-documented international career began with him top-scoring as Argentina won the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, though his senior debut later that year proved to be an inauspicious one, Messi being sent off only 47 seconds after coming on in a friendly against Hungary. Further frustration came when he watched from the bench as La Albiceleste went out to the hosts on penalties in the quarter-finals at Germany 2006, a setback followed by defeat to Brazil in final of the 2007 Copa America. There would be a happier outcome in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Beijing 2008, where Messi contributed to his country’s gold-medal win.
Though much was expected of him at South Africa 2010, he failed to score as Argentina fell in the last eight again. Since then, however, he has become his country’s second-highest goalscorer of all time, overtaking Hernan Crespo and Diego Maradona, his coach in South Africa, in the process. An object of criticism from some Albiceleste fans in the past, Messi has been attracting plenty of praise since the appointment of Sabella, who has elevated him to the captaincy and built the team around him. With ten goals, La Pulga was his country’s leading scorer in the qualifiers for Brazil 2014.
While his status as one of the greatest players ever to walk the Earth is not in question, Messi is intent on winning a World Cup and safeguarding his legacy as an all-time legend. Following an up-and-down season with his club, during which he has been hampered by injury, he heads to Brazil rested and determined to achieve his goal.