The Limits Of Lionel Messi As He Reaches For Glory

With Lionel Messi set to claim this year's Ballon d'Or, today on the blog David shares his thoughts on the Barcelona and Argentinian superstar and the place he holds in the hearts of football fans across the world as he seeks to eclipse his famous footballing compatriot.

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It would be nothing short of euphemism to say Messi’s year has been fantastic on a personal level yet 2012 has, in equal measure to sustaining his myth, served to affirm once more what appear to be his main limits. Limits which, despite not being of proportions large enough to hinder him from making the most realistic claim for being the best on the planet in the present day world of football, do put a dent to winning over the crowds as the closest to perfection to have ever graced the game, especially when inevitable comparisons arise with compatriot Maradona.

Can these traits affect his ascent to legendary status as he is poised to receive a record-breaking fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or award, with main rival Cristiano Ronaldo taking a lower-key record-breaking fourth second place?

Growing In The Shadow Of A Legend

Yes the title might as well refer to Cristiano Ronaldo’s unlucky star having situated him within the same space-time continuum as Messi, however, the diminutive forward has for years now been involved in a similarly engaging and anxious battle. An inalienable comparison drawn between him and the man whose legacy he is expected to transcend.

The physical stature, the nationality, the position. Despite the generation separating them, Messi’s advent came just in time to bring about the heavy burden of being the one chosen to defeat the legend of Diego Armando Maradona.

The confluence of the two talents, beyond the barrier of time, goes beyond what may seem to the critical eye as simplistic regression to archetypal ideas engrained in mainstream culture and folklore. The legendary father figure succeeded by a son, possibly better than his predecessor, come to redefine new standards. It is way more than an unassuming chase for romanticism in the game.

When Messi’s worried parents undertook frequent trips to the doctor back in his native Rosario, a preoccupied young Leo, still very short for his age, used to express only one concern to the physician – whether he would be tall enough to play football as a professional when older. The doctor would reassure him that the therapy he would undergo would allow him to do that, promptly reminding him that at 1.65 metres Maradona was the best of them all at the time, and ensuring that treatment would have him grow even taller than his idol.

On purely anatomical terms this has in fact happened with Messi standing some 4 centimetres taller than Maradona. Yet has this happened on the football pitch and in the fans’ hearts as well?

The Real Deal

The parallelism that ensues is instinctive. Only natural given the many points of conversion that associate the life path of both men.

We know all about the limits of Maradona. Suspicious friendships off the field, the continued use of cocaine, lack of discipline when it came to training regimes and relentless diatribes with club administration anywhere he went.

They never were limits that reflected on the pitch though. He played for his team and, whether driven by an insatiable need to avoid defeat at all costs or spurned on by love for his club, he gave his utmost for 90 minutes. It did not matter if he played wide on the left, as a striker, just off the main centre forward, behind two strikers, a playmaker required to drop deep. He was not finicky about his position and the perfection he demanded was first and foremost from himself. His teammates loved him and placed all their faith in his almost infinite talent. He proposed himself as their leader and they gladly accepted to be guided by the bright light of this invincible star.

Having been excluded from the 1978 World Cup by Menotti, considering him too young as a 17-year old to undertake the campaign for a tournament hosted on home soil that was intended to breathe life into a country suffering long term political turmoil at the time, Diego had become a central figure for the 1986 campaign and he was fired up to lift the trophy he had dreamed of winning since he first started kicking the ball in the poverty-stricken suburb of Villa Fiorito, south of Buenos Aires.

The Argentine squad that travelled to Mexico in 1986 had few star names apart from that of Maradona in their starting eleven. He was captain and leader of that group of players. Carlos Salvador Bilardo, the Argentina coach who would eventually lead his country to a second World Cup trophy, their latest and the only won out of the boundaries of their home turf, had travelled to Napoli to meet his team’s captain and talk tactics.

At the restaurant table a typical dish of the Italian city of Naples sat in front of them. The pizza had sardines as a topping and at one point Bilardo moved one of the fish to the sides of the plate to symbolize how Maradona used to play under Menotti when the former Argentina manager had selected him for the World Cup tournament in Spain four years earlier. A campaign they did not see off to the end due to successive defeats to Brazil and Italy in the second round group phase of the time, with Maradona seeing red against the South American rivals.

Bilardo explained how he wanted Maradona to move in a different position, playing behind the strikers, Valdano partnered with either Borghi or Pasculli. A playmaker’s role which Argentina adopted for the first four games of the tournament. From the quarter-final onwards, from the famous match against England, Bilardo asked of his captain to retreat to a deeper role, took off one striker leaving Valdano as the lone front man and relied on the forward runs of his wide men Burruchaga and Hector Enrique.

Maradona did not flinch. He was not overwhelmed by a sudden change in tactics nor was he preoccupied with how he could get on the score sheet and shine as the brightest star of them all. These had not been concerns he was minded with as his team set foot to recapture a trophy they had lost to Italy four years earlier.

When asked for the sacrifice Maradona never hesitated, burdened with how the role would reflect on his image or how many goals he would be grabbing along with the headlines on the newspapers of the day after. He played the first four matches behind the two strikers and had only one goal to his name. In the final three steps away from glory, the final three games, he accepted the change of role and scored two each in both the quarter-final match and in the semifinal.

In the final against the disciplined Germans of Beckenbauer, with Matthaus hot on his heels for all 90 minutes, Maradona was stuck in a less mobile role down the field but he still served two assists and started the move which lead to the second Argentine goal. The match finished 3-2.

My Game, My Rules

Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic and David Villa. All high profile victims of Messi’s prima donna stance in terms of attacking roles at Barcelona. Not to mention non-protagonist actors in the Bluagrana production, such as Henry and Sanchez. Pedro and Tello have also seen their number of games reduced, guilty of being too intent on finding the back of the net themselves and igniting the fury of an inpatient Messi. Fabregas, lured with promise of trophies away from the Emirates, must surely be paying the price for his proneness to find the spaces and tendency to seek the right position for a final one-on-one with the opposing keeper rather than setting up his companions.

When it comes to fighting for the headlines, for the goals that he craves in order to feel as big as the club, Messi does not hesitate to step on the altar boy’s image and show his teeth, raging at whoever threatens to take the spotlight away from him, and this has grown to become even more manifest this season with on-the-pitch arguments, Ibrahimovic-like gesturing and annoyed remarks directed at his own teammates.

Messi is a world class player and the club does need to make him feel important. However, he has shown serious limits of adaptability and has himself imposed on all managers appointed by the club so far that the central attacking role be solely his. For the most coveted asset of the club no manager has ever thought about ignoring his demands, even if it was at the expense of other notable geniuses of the game. They were all thrown off the tower leaving one king to reign supreme over the Blaugrana territory.

Leo keeps commanding the fleet, right where he wants to stand in the centre of attack, and he keeps getting the goals. Loads of them. On the often triumphant marches towards success, however, he has been building a dependency for Barcelona on his own self. How will Barcelona fare without its talisman? For the past three seasons, as this possible helpless dependence grew silently, we had no occasion to test this with Messi one year after the other appearing for more than 30 games in la Liga and at least 10 in the Champions League. Four seasons ago it was 27 and 10 respectively.

Talented foot soldiers like Xavi and Iniesta have always played the game to favour Messi’s role but the years are rolling over faster for them and la Pulga will be finding himself increasingly lonely, trying to play a game others won’t want to any more. And so will Barcelona – its current winning strategy – too reliant on the true silent manager in disguise.

10 / 10

The reference here is not so much to a possible score reflecting on either Messi’s or Maradona’s career as footballers but to what has been referred to historically as the ‘goal of the century’. Ten seconds to execute the move. Ten touches to the ball.

World Cup 1986. Quarter-final in Mexico City. Argentina versus England. A match that would come to encapsulate what Maradona was all about in perfect, almost illogical, synchrony. An epitaph to the very definition of holism. The varying aspects of the man that complete him as a distinct entity, more rightfully absorbed as a totality rather than a sum of the parts. Genius and madness. All in one match. One man. The sneakiest and most inglorious of goals separated in time by mere minutes from the goal that many would agree, for both execution and scenario onto which it unfolded, shares the number one spot in the all time hit list with none other.

A talent that was divine coupled with weakness that was typically human. That was Maradona. A man who has come to know both extremes in life. An innate, indispensable search for downfall that would test his mettle as he sprung back up in dissent and admirable arrogance towards condemnation and criticism. A respectable hero’s making is soaked in such drama, in both the fall from grace and the resurgence from the fiery depths of hell.

How would Messi cope with downfall? Is it not those stormy seas that we would want a sailor to navigate in order to be sure of our words and convictions when we affirm that he is indeed the very best?

Will we ever have the chance to test Messi’s resolve in dire situations though? His discipline and dedication to a work ethic that is quite rare in players boasting that kind of talent, whilst laudable and worthy of sincere admiration, limits the expression of his full human potential.

Back To The Future

The race to the Ballon d’Or had looked over already since Cristiano Ronaldo started lamenting how he does not get the necessary support from his club. That was a clear response to what he perceives as an unjust depiction of his persona by the media, especially the Spanish media intent on not giving its full support to a Portuguese player.

In a recent interview with CNN the Portuguese forward was pleading for people to give him a chance and cease considering him as an arrogant millionaire who is out to have fun with the ladies, with football just another means of income to sustain his dream lifestyle. The interview was conducted by Pedro Pinto, himself of Portuguese descent, and suspiciously not inclined to malice as his poorly disguised questions were a clear lead-on to an unrealistic quick-fix rebuilding of an image now unfairly labelling Ronaldo as primarily a playboy rather than a professional footballer.

His apparently enforced settling in a monogamous, so to speak, relationship with Russian model Irina Shayk, has been an attempt to deviate from that depiction over the past year. Despite Ronaldo’s ambitions it is the playboy image that sells. It has worked out for the brands he endorses and it is in large part thanks to that ‘bad boy’ image that he is valued more than Messi on the advertising market. I bet he would give away that monetary difference in an instant to be considered the best player ahead of the Argentine but that is not a call he has any power to make. Messi, on the other hand, would much rather marry his high school crush – best friend’s cousin actually, whom he has known since she was five, Antonella Roccuzzo – rather than sample what the world of glam and celebrity has to offer to a young millionaire. Now that is the image that says ‘professional focused on his job’.

Too bad for Ronaldo that few believe one can still concentrate on doing a good job whilst having fun, when in fact he has been all about proving that conviction wrong since he was just an ambitious youngster having travelled from the tiny island of Madeira to the big stage at Sporting Lisbon at just 12 years of age.

Where Is The Love?

Would humans ever be able to express love towards automatons as they do for other human beings or animals? That may be a question we will most likely be dealing with in the near future but it is very telling of the very essence of human nature. We tend to fall in love with the whole totality of a being, including his misgivings. In fact it is probably those expressions of vulnerability that give taste, body and flavour to an otherwise boring drab soup.

We need to have something to forgive. We need to be able to give our support and cheer our loved one back up on his feet when we see him failing. The need to feel useful and to be an accomplice in our idol’s return to greatness. But in order for someone to return he must first have been lost. Away from our eyes and shunned by our love.

Messi has always been there. Consistent. Disciplined. A curving ascent in a regularly irregular exponential growth to stardom. Frustratingly so in fact, because it makes us useless. Mere spectators of a kid’s rise to fame. With or without your attention and endorsement Leo will keep on shooting skywards.

Now this is not to say that Messi is indeed a robot […or is he? ] but you will never read about any serious qualms of his that raise questions about the kid’s integrity. A call from afar that he does need your expressed opinion or some other form of intangible support to the cause. There will rarely be anything you will need to forgive him for.

The best you will get are some reservations about his character. This was the year in which we have seen him show his teeth to defend his territory, having barked at Villa on numerous occasions and repeated this with other teammates who hesitate before passing the ball to him as they would much rather look for the third or fourth goal themselves with their less powerful shots, slower pace and, in comparison, clumsier nature.

Unforgiving of others’ incompleteness. This is how it has made Messi emerge in the eyes of the average football fan. A non-negotiable automaton who does not condone failure. Antipathy inevitably strikes.

Despite all the problems and enemies he had, Maradona was in the end loved by all his teammates and fans. Messi seems not be able to do that despite having built a much less controversial image of himself and the main critics reside none other than in his native Argentina.

Perhaps it may stem from Messi’s early departure to continental Europe when at a very young age his signature was snapped up by an eager Barcelona side in the making, already back then plotting how to triumph on the world stage by raising a generation of super youngsters in their cantera. His long love story with the Blaugrana make of him a son of Spain as much as, if not more than, a son of Argentina. A European, with less sangre caliente than a South American ought to exhibit.

The hardened character and the temper that pushes him to do even more. That is what he has shown a substantial deficiency of up until now. Maradona took the plunge and transferred to relatively anonymous Napoli. He fought for success in the mud with a much less talented squad than Messi has ever played in. Most of all, he almost single-handedly carried on his shoulders the aspirations and ambitions of a nation on the World stage, putting in the most wonderful display a single player has ever achieved in a World Cup tournament, probably on par level with that of Pele in 1958.

Will Messi’s meticulous yet squeamish disposition on the pitch keep standing in his way of achieving the legendary status his predecessor did? Will he ever find himself disarmed, faced by unfavourable circumstances, and yet discover himself capable of turning to a distant inside calling, an impulsiveness, that compels him to push himself harder, over the obstacles that stand in the way, triumphantly revealing the heroic traits that deserve the final reward?

That is how Maradona carved his name in history as the best, because just like in any legendary hero’s tale he was slammed to the ground, seemingly defeated, before he proved himself stronger than his circumstances. That is how Messi needs to prove himself better.

No amount of Ballon d’Or awards will ever prove an effective short cut to the fans’ hearts.

 

The Odds: Messi is best priced at 2.75 with William Hill to be first goalscorer today at Barcelona host Espanyol and 1.25 with Stan James to score anytime.