Player Number One: Leo Messi
Club Team: FC Barcelona
American-Based Professional Athlete Soulmate: Kobe Bryant, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers
By the time our # 1 Player to Watch at the 2010 World Cup reaches his 23rd birthday, his national team, the Albiceleste, will be finished with group play and, sitting as I write on three points, more than likely awaiting the runner-up from Group A in the Round of 16. From that point forward, there are myriad reasons to believe that their run on the African continent will last as long as Lionel Messi, the greatest footballer in the world, decides it will. The spectacular Messi, who has been hailed the heir to Diego Maradona, has at 22 won most every battle he’s had and every award there is to win. He’s led Barca to victory in the Champions League, won FIFA Footballer of the Year, the Ballon D’Or as the European Club Player of the Year, a U-20 World Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal in 2008. At 22, all that’s left is world domination. It is hard to imagine that he is still has so much time. It is hard to imagine that he is still getting better, which of course, separates him from his soulmate, but more on that later.
El Pulga, or “The Flea”, as he is known around the world thanks to his small stature (the product of a hormonal growth deficiency that afflicted him at a young age) and his ability to gnaw away like a pest at opposing defenses, is, needless to say, a complete player. He defends well for someone his size. His pace is not overwhelming but he is just as fast with the ball as without it—rare even at the highest-levels of football. His runs from the midfield are the stuff of youtube legend and tend to be lethal—just ask Arsenal, whom he victimized for four goals this past April to eliminate the Gunners from the Champions League. His ball control is spectacular and as mentioned above, he can run with ball at nearly identical pace as he runs off it, which is, at least for the time being, unparalleled in international football. At 20, he scored a goal that many think is one of the greatest in history, one his countrymen compare to Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. His own national team coach, Diego Maradona, has summarized The Flea brilliantly, as only he can: “Messi is my Maradona.”
Even with the praise of Diego, even with all of the championship and accolades, even the four-goal performance against Arsenal, the unparalleled ball skills and dashing runs—it isn’t enough to describe Leo Messi. The best way to explain Messi is that he is, without question, part of what makes the game of football absolutely incredible. He’s the greatest of all in a game that is the world’s game, and perhaps the world’s greatest game, because at its highest level of mastery it is so very difficult to explain. One has to see to believe.
At its most reductionist, soccer is a simple game. At times, as the goal-starved first wave of games in the world cup demonstrates, it is simple and it is melancholy. Boring and slow to some, unjust to others, random and unpredictable. In this way, as Israeli novelist Etgar Keret pointed out in the New Republic’s “World Cup Preview” edition, “it so painfully similar to life”, and one watches “holding out he hope that, at some moment, however brief, everything will come together and take on meaning.” Messi provides so many of those moments of meaning. For ten to fifteen seconds, he can take the ball, provide something overwhelmingly magical and then the rarest of things, a goal at the highest level of the game, and a masterful one at that, turns 90 minutes, to quote Keret again, into “something coherent, beautiful, and worthwhile.” After that, even when we return to our realities, or the game returns to its slow, trudging ebb and flow—those moments make us return, trapped forever in the clouds and thunder that separate us from the heavens. As such, even if you aren’t a full-time fan of the so-called “beautiful game”, remember to watch Messi this summer. You may see a moment of beauty that helps explain why so many of us think the game is perfectly flawed and unforgettable.
Speaking of perfectly flawed and unforgettable, such is life for Messi and Argentina under Maradona, and this is more justification for Messi’s placement at number one. Indeed, the Argentine hero who is the only man alive who can perhaps with a straight-face tell Pele to “go back to the museum, has had a tumultuous run as the Argentine manager. He barely qualified for the Finals, losing 6-1 to Bolivia along the way, and needing injury time against Peru just to set up a decisive qualifier against Uruguay, which was finally won in the 84th minute. After bragging endlessly to the press about barely qualifying with one of the most talented rosters in the world, and receiving a two month suspension by FIFA for doing so, Maradona has further proven his perpetual instability by calling one of the most unbalanced sides in the tournament. Aging and error-prone players like Coloccini and Demichellis got nods and the midfield lacks a holder beyond Javier Mascherano, and has no true distributors to speak of beyond the lazy and old Veron. The absence of Champions League maestros Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso is without question the most foolish roster decision in the tournament, and it showed in Argentina’s opening match, as the absurd wealth of talent at forward was starved of the ball for long stretches. Yet Maradona seems convinced his five chosen forwards, who scored 150 goals this season, are capable of propelling Argentina to glory. Never mind that none scored in the opener—Maradona thinks Messi is on the verge of a—you guessed it—Maradona-esque run in the Cup. It appears Messi believes him, as he has told the press that he can “light up the World Cup.” They’ll need him too, because Mardona’s roster choices and absence of tactical acumen suggest that it will take something beyond this earth, something extraordinary, to lift the Cup. Then again… such is life for Leo Messi—about the only man in the game capable of taking a team so perfectly flawed, and making them unforgettable.
Speaking of perfectly flawed and unforgettable, Leo Messi’s soulmate Kobe Bryant has heard that story. He’s heard since he was eighteen, and despite being tri-lingual and brilliant SAT scores, he decided the NBA, and not Duke, was the place for him. Three championships later, Bryant decided he wasn’t certain he could deal with being a sidekick to a legend anymore. After all, wasn’t he the man knocking down the big shots, and not Shaquille O’Neal? Kobe has always had Phil Jackson—so he’s never dealt with wild instability in a coach. But he’s had instability off the court—a rape charge (dismissed), public admission of his adultery in its aftermath, the loss of sponsorships, branded a prima donna, a whiner. Lesser men with smaller gifts would have collapsed. Kobe just kept playing. He won a championship without Shaq, even though people didn’t think it could be done. He led his country to a Gold Medal in China, going miles to repair his image that summer just by being marvelous at playing a game. When his team had its back to the wall in the Gold Medal game—when others were missing jumpers, when the lack of a post presence was finally catching up to the “Redeem Team”, a country turned to Kobe. Let that Mamba loose, Coach K told him. He did. Gold Medal. All the while, you knew the naysayers, the reporters who were waiting for another fall from grace—they would still ride Bryant. They found new ways to get under his skin, to attack the man’s pride. Lebron was the greatest player in the world, they told Bryant after ring number four. They’re apologizing now. Tomorrow night, hours after Messi takes to the pitch in South Africa, Bryant will go for ring number five. Greatest Laker of them all? Perhaps. Greatest ever? Well, if he wins tomorrow night, he’ll have two titles without a complementary hall-of-famer as his able lieutenant—so it’s safe to say His Airness is on speed dial.
What makes the two soulmates—beyond between-the-lines mastery? They’re both capable of doing something extraordinary—the one magical thing that makes you watch a November NBA telecast or a late summer, early autumn La Liga fixture. They are, without question, capable of breaking the monotony of daily routine with something that seems beyond the reach of human capability. They both dwell in the shadows of legends—and both seem conflicted about it.
At 22, Messi has shown signs of internal struggle responding to criticism of his play with the national team (Only 4 strikes in qualifying). Kobe? Well—he just deals with the shadows of Magic, Jerry West and some guy named Michael. No big deal. Blogger Free Darko explains Kobe’s internal struggles best, I think, in the MacroPhenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac:
“… Kobe Bryant would fascinate us even if he weren’t the world’s best basketball player. For in addition to his mastery of basketball—the kind of catch-all supremacy that’s led him to pick up Duncan’s bank shot—Bryant’s also a study in what happens when the drives and desires of greatness fly off the rails and exposes all of its inherent contradictions. To his detractors, Kobe Bryant is Dracula: a spooky, inhuman being that gets s**t done. Starstruck fans regard him as the epitome of glitz, glam, and accomplishment. In truth, he’s that most stormy, and mortal, kind of great man. If Shaquille O’Neal always represented Superman, then Kobe’s been the Dark Knight: vulnerable, but all the stronger for it.”
So tomorrow—take note. One continues his quest for a title- the other finishes it. The Flea and Black Mamba, the Dark Knight—both trying to lead perfectly flawed teams to the realm of the unforgettable.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.