From a sporting perspective I have lived in a very fortunate era. At the time when I was aware enough to recognize greatness some of the greatest athletes of all time have lived and played, and I was able to see them in their primes: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Steffi Graf (alas, I just missed Martina at her peak), Michelle Kwan, Michelle Akers, Marta, Michael Phelps, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and Lionel Messi. There may be more; this is not an exhaustive list, and I cannot follow every sport.
To an extent this is a natural progression, every generation of athletes improves upon the previous one, particularly with regard to skill development and training. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that. Even so, the people I named tower over their sports, and their feats will not be easily forgotten (or surpassed) just because time has gone by.
Today Lionel Messi score five goals in a 7-1 trouncing of Bayer Leverkusen at the Camp Nou. This is the first time that anyone anywhere in any time period scored that many goals at this stage of the Champions League or its predecessor the European Cup (the first time ever in the Champions League). Not DiStefano, Puskas, Eusebio, Best, Cruyff, Muller, Platini, Maradona, van Basten, Romario, Ronaldo, Zidane, Ronaldinho, or Cristiano Ronaldo. Pele, of course, never played in Europe.
Goals alone are not an indication of greatness, and Messi plays for arguably the finest side of all time, a side that took over two decades of crafting before the finished jewel could emerge. Messi is neither the captain nor the engine of the team, but Messi is something else. He is the personification of Barcelona’s greatness. It is like he is divinely touched, as though he were created only to play football. After today’s victory, one of the Spanish newspapers (one of the pro-Barcelona papers, naturally) said that he was not a footballer, he is an extraterrestrial.
Every time you think that you have seen the best of Messi, he surprises you with a completely new level. It’s enough to make you weep with joy that you have been privileged to see such a player play. The Argentinians cannot understand what they have although the Catalans rejoice in it. The World Cup is not necessary to complete Messi’s legacy (teams win tournaments, not individuals), but I do hope he does win one eventually. If only because only then will Messi’s countrymen finally embrace that the greatest player of all time is one of their own. Imagine the joy if Messi’s Argentina won the World Cup in Brazil. The Church of Maradona would add a second deity.
After Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, he was asked if he thought of himself as the best player in the world. He laughed and said that he wasn’t even the best player on his own team. He was talking about Messi, who was still a teenager at the time. To an outsider that seemed an incredible claim, but at the Camp Nou, they all knew what they had, and they guarded it jealously. Now the rest of the world knows what the Catalans did. Messi is not just of this generation; he belongs to the ages. We will tell our grandchildren that we saw Messi play. And they will envy us.