Psychologists call it statistical numbing. Humans, studies show, are incapable of fathoming huge numbers, particularly when they refer to events of mass importance. We are more inclined to act if we bear witness to an individual tragedy, for example, than one which affects a hundred people. We just can’t understand the scale.
Lionel Messi is all too-aware of this phenomenon. The greatest player of all time broke another record this week, scoring his 100th goal in Europe at the age of just 30. Statistically speaking, the likelihood of him scoring in a Champions League game is 0.82. Think about that for a second. Absorb the magnitude of it.
Messi’s brilliance is constant, and so it is forgettable. When we watch him score five against Leverkusen, or slalom past an entire Getafe team before a dinking finish, the superlatives are rolled out like a tired, worn red carpet. We’ve seen it all before. We expect to see it again. His audacity is so prevalent that we are anesthetized by it.
But there is a time-limit on his talent. Fans of a certain age have grown up alongside Messi, controlling him on their video games, buying his replica shirts, watching his glossy advertisements for premium airlines. The idea of a life beyond him, the notion that someone won’t come along after him and score 360 goals in 390 club appearances, seems unfathomable to a generation who have been spoiled by his prowess.
Hiding in the Shadow of his own Greatness
Records, it seems, are just obstacles for Lionel Messi to obliterate. Five Ballons D’or, four Golden Shoes. Twenty-nine club trophies, including eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues. But the numbers don’t sink in, do they?
They didn’t for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, either. When the salt-and-pepper maestro emerged to govern European football in 2008, his team were celebrated across the continent. By the time he departed four years later, they were boring to watch, their dominance rendering the spectacle of actually watching the games obsolete. Messi, alongside his henchmen Xavi and Iniesta, was just too good for the contest to ever be competitive.
He hasn’t helped himself either, of course. He is famously gruff and consciously avoids the celebrity so enamoured by his nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo. Unlike Diego Maradona, the impossible pibe in whose shadow Messi has always resided, the Barcelona man is undemonstrative. There are no obvious displays of machismo, no chest-beating pride in the shirt.
For most of his career, he has been far away from Argentinian football, so much so that he was given the moniker ‘El Catalán’ for long periods back in Buenos Aires. Leaving the country aged just 13, there was a sense that he hadn’t ‘paid his dues’ to the domestic game, in the same way Maradona had with Boca Juniors.
Don’t Cry for Messi, Argentina
When Messi announced his retirement from international football after the Copa America final in 2016, however, a sullen country had a change of heart. Even Argentine president Mauricio Macri attempted to intercede, after a rally arranged to convince the footballer to recant was attended by thousands of fans in the Argentinian capital.
It had the desired effect. Messi reversed his decision, and his country were rejuvenated. “Many things went through my head the day of the last [Copa America] final and I seriously thought of leaving, but I love this country and this shirt too much,” he admitted on his return.
Even now his country relies almost exclusively on him to win: in the eight matches he missed in qualifying, they mustered just seven points. Argentina would not have qualified for the 2018 World Cup had their talisman not dispatched a hat-trick against Ecuador in Quito a few weeks ago. All the Gonzalo Higuains and Sergio Agueros could not make up for his singular, unrelenting brilliance. “The final team talk was that we all had to take Messi, the best player in the world, to Russia,” said the Argentine coach, Jorge Sampaoli, after the game.
It was an astonishing admission, but it was one well overdue. Messi’s first goal of the night was also the first that his country had scored in nearly 500 minutes. The last player to notch one? You guessed it.
The Greatest of All Time?
There are craven suggestions that Messi’s legacy will not be secured unless he lifts the World Cup next summer. For a man who’s taken his country to no less than four competition finals – including the last World Cup – it feels churlish.
Make no mistake; Messi will be remembered as the best player in history, irrespective of whether he lifts the trophy next summer or not. He is the greatest player in the greatest team of his generation, a shifter of paradigms and a paragon of unbridled excellence. All we can do is watch as the goals and the trophies continue to pile up and try not to be desensitised in the process. Because, for all his mind-numbing statistics, we’ll miss him when he’s gone.
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