It is official: the pitter-patter of tiny feet can be heard, delivering history. It is the sound of the crown prince of football, Lionel Messi, closing inexorably on Gerd Muller’s phenomenal 40-year-old record of 85 goals for club and country in a calendar year.
Surely against either Benfica on Wednesday or Real Betis at the weekend, Messi will equal and eclipse “Der Bomber”. For Bayern Munich and West Germany, Muller was a finisher extraordinaire, a poacher with an acrobat’s agility to reach the ball and transfer it instantly past a keeper.
“A football game is far from easy, goals never come cheaply,” sang Muller in a pop record of limited musical merit, yet this was a performer who made the game’s most important art form look so easy.
So does Messi, albeit as a totally different player, a dribbling zephyr and far more feline than the stocky Muller. Messi’s magic was on show in Barcelona’s 5-1 win over Athletic Bilbao at the Nou Camp on Sunday, his double taking him to 84 for 2012. Anyone admiring the television footage of the Argentine’s darting footwork could squint and just imagine it was his celebrated compatriot Diego Maradona in his Eighties pomp.
Blur the eyes and there were memories of Maradona, transfixing with a cobra’s stare a line of six Belgians breaking nervously from a wall at the 1982 World Cup. Four years later, Maradona conjured up the goal voted the greatest in World Cup history, moving imperiously through England’s midfield and defence like a wriggling eel. Comparisons between generations are dangerous, and Messi must still deliver in a World Cup, but he can be spoken about in the same awed breath as Maradona.
Just as those fortunate enough to watch Maradona live knew greatness, so it is now with Messi. He is special because he makes children fall in love with the game and turns world-weary, seen-it-all adults into wide-eyed children again. Sunday highlighted his irrepressible, illuminating brilliance.
Messi embodies Barcelona’s ability to mix their style, keeping possession and then suddenly going through the gears. He can link moves and race through when a gap opens such as in pursuit of a laser-guided Xavi pass. These are the imbalanced duels of sport, Messi versus a goalkeeper.
One of the myriad joys of Messi, one of the many reasons he is such an ambassador for the game, arrive in his celebrations. There is no crowing, no belittling of the opposition. He points to the heavens, a dedication to his grandmother who “took me to football but now she can’t see how far I have come” as once he told Spanish daily Marca. Nice touch: remembering those who helped him on his path to the heights.
Humility defines Messi on and off the pitch, making him even more of a role model than Maradona ever was. Messi expresses joy at his goals, giving thanks to his team-mates. This virtuoso is also the ultimate team-player.
To borrow local parlance, Messi is more than a player. He is already a legend. We are fortunate to live in his time.