Judging by interviews, neither Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi seems like the smartest tool in the shed, but they both possess a keen mind for football as Simon Kuper explains. Messi, who appears to listlessly sandbag his way through the early part of matches, is actually using the time to size up his opponent:
It was a puzzling sight. The little man was wandering around, apparently ignoring the ball. The official explained: "In the first few minutes he just walks across the field. He is looking at each opponent, where the guy positions himself, and how their defense fits together. Only after doing that does he start to play."
"Part of my preparation," he told the writer David Winner for ESPN The Magazine in 2012, "is I go and ask the kit man what colour we're wearing, if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a 'memory' before the game. I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming but I've always done it, my whole life."
A footballer's exceptional visual memory was on display recently when FC Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez was quizzed about 5 particular goals he's scored out of 57 total across almost 500 matches for his club:
He gets them all correct, even what the scores were when they happened, the final scores, who else scored in each match, and even the team's position in La Liga.
Plainly put, Messi is a shadow of his former self. He's much more cynical, more selfish and power-hungry. How else can the departure of Martino and friction with Enrique be explained? It's a power play by a man who feels his powers waning. Consider: after Barcelona's 5-0 victory against Levante, Messi had only managed 37 goals and 18 assists in all competitions. A far cry from the player who once scored 82 goals in one season.
At 27 years old, we might be witnessing the twilight of Messi's career. It's a shame for a player who seemed to be on a tear just a few years ago.
It was a weirdly cynical take that contained a kernel of truth. A little over a month later on Mar 23, Jeff Himmelman wrote a piece called Lionel Messi Is Back On His Game.
But in the new year, Messi has finally started to look like himself again; he has been on fire, racking up hat tricks and leading the league in scoring. His legs and his extraordinary bursts of energy -- the engine of his game -- are back, and a move to the right flank from the congested middle has freed him to do what he does best: making slashing runs at defenders with speed, creating space and chances.
On the evidence of the last week, it has become possible to wonder whether Messi might actually be better than ever. The best reason to think so was the first half of Barcelona's game against Manchester City on Wednesday, in the round of 16 of the Champions League European club championships. From the start, Messi spun passes into tight spaces and flew up and down the field with a boyish abandon that was nowhere to be found last year.
In that Man City game, Messi nutmegged both Milner and Fernandinho:
The irony of that goal against Getafe, in retrospect, is that he's not the next Maradona; he's nothing like Maradona. Maradona was all energy, right on the surface; watching Messi is like watching someone run in a dream. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, Maradona jumped up to challenge you; if you took the field against him, he wanted to humiliate you, to taunt you. Messi plays like he doesn't know you're there. His imagination is so perfectly fused with his technique that his assumptions can obliterate you before his skill does.
He has always seemed oddly nonthreatening for someone with a legitimate claim to being the best soccer player in history. He seems nice, and maybe he is. (He goes on trial for tax evasion soon; it is impossible to believe he defrauded authorities on purpose, because it is impossible to believe that he manages his finances at all.) On the pitch, though, this is deceptive. It's an artifact of his indifference to your attention. He doesn't notice whether or not you notice. His greatness is nonthreatening because it is so elusive, even though its elusiveness is what makes it a threat.
Messi is only 27, holds or is within striking distance of all sorts of all-time records, and I'm already sad about his career ending. This is big talk, perhaps nonsense, but Messi might be better at soccer than Michael Jordan was at basketball. I dunno, I was bummed when Jordan retired (well, the first two times anyway), but with Messi, thinking about his retirement, it seems to me like soccer will lose something special that it will never ever see again.
By now I've studied nearly every aspect of Messi's game, down to a touch-by-touch level: his shooting and scoring production; where he shoots from; how often he sets up his own shots; what kind of kicks he uses to make those shots; his ability to take on defenders; how accurate his passes are; the kind of passes he makes; how often he creates scoring chances; how often those chances lead to goals; even how his defensive playmaking compares to other high-volume shooters.
And that's just the stuff that made it into this article. I arrived at a conclusion that I wasn't really expecting or prepared for: Lionel Messi is impossible.
It's not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It's not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It's not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It's not possible to lead the world's forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it's certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.
But Messi does all of this and more.
The piece is chock-full of evidential graphs of how much of an outlier Messi is among his talented peers:
One of my favorite things that I've written about sports is how Lionel Messi rarely dives, which allows him to keep the advantage he has over the defense.
"Barry Sanders is my new idol," Bo Jackson said after a Raiders-Lions game in 1990. "I love the way the guy runs. When I grow up, I want to be just like him."
The Raiders won that game, and the Lions were 4-9 at the time, but it didn't even matter.
All anyone could talk about afterward was the "little water bug" who "might rewrite history."
This wasn't necessarily a metaphor for Barry's entire Lions career -- he was on more playoff teams than people remember -- but it definitely covers about half the years he spent in Detroit. Even when the Lions were awful, Barry would still have a few plays every game that would keep people gawking afterward.
Bo Jackson had a similar effect on people, which is part of what makes that old quote so cool. The Bo Jackson combination of speed and power is something we'd never seen before and haven't seen since. He was a cult hero then, and the legend has only grown over the years.
I've always been an atypical sports fan. I grew up in Wisconsin rooting for the Packers & Brewers but switched to being a Vikings & Cubs fan sometime in high school. But despite following the Vikings at the time, my favorite player in the NFL was Barry Sanders. For my money, Sanders was pure symphonic excellence in motion, the best running back (and perhaps player) the NFL had ever seen and maybe will ever see. I wonder if one of the reasons why I like Lionel Messi so much is because he reminds me of Sanders; in stature, in strength, in quickness, in skill. Compare and contrast some of their finest runs:
For Howler Magazine, Sam Markham writes about Diego Maradona's second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal, aka Probably The Best Goal of All Time. Markham focuses on how a pair of radio commentators -- one English, the other from South America -- called the goal.
Morales's ecstatic commentary of Maradona's second goal is itself iconic in Argentina, and his lyrical expression "Barrilete cosmico!" (Cosmic kite!) is now shorthand in Argentina and much of South America for Maradona. His narration is a frenzied mix of poetry, yelling, and sobbing that ends with a prayer: "Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this-Argentina 2, England 0."
Even if you don't care about soccer, you should give this a listen...the dude absolutely loses his shit:
An alternate view of the spectacular goal has recently been found. Oh, and my favorite weird thing about this goal: Lionel Messi is considered by many to be Maradona's heir (both are small, Argentinian, and otherworldly talented) and in 2007, at the age of 19, he scored this goal against Getafe:
As you can see in the side-by-side comparison, it's extremely similar to Maradona's goal. Even the commentator loses it in a similar manner.
The next time people in Rosario heard his name, he was a star. "It is difficult to be a hero in your own city," explained Marcelo Ramirez, a family friend and radio host who showed us text messages from Messi. "He didn't grow up here. It's like he lost contact with the people. He is more an international figure than a Rosarino."
The Argentine national team coaches found out about him through a videotape, and the first time they sent him an invitation to join the squad, they addressed it to "Leonel Mecci." In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, playing outside the familiar Barcelona system, he struggled, at least in the expectant eyes of his countrymen. His coaches and teammates didn't understand the aloof Messi, who once went to a team-building barbecue and never said a word, not even to ask for meat. The people from Argentina thought he was Spanish, and in the cafes and pool halls, they wondered why he always won championships for Barcelona but never for his own country. They raged when he didn't sing the national anthem before games. In Barcelona, Messi inspired the same reaction. People noticed he didn't speak Catalan and protected his Rosarino accent. He bought meat from an Argentine butcher and ate in Argentine restaurants. "Barcelona is not his place in the world," influential Spanish soccer editor Aitor Lagunas wrote in an e-mail. "It's a kind of a laboral emigrant with an undisguised homesick feeling."
Lionel Messi has scored 234 goals in his short career (he's only 24), making him the top goal scorer in all competitions for FC Barcelona. Here are all of them.
What strikes me about this video, aside from the crappy quality, is that the type of goals Messi scores are not generally what you see from other top scorers. Think of the booming balls of Ronaldo for instance, which may break the sound barrier on their way into the back of the net. Many of Messi's goals often don't look like much. They're chips and slow rollers and even the fast ones aren't that fast. But what's apparent in watching goal after goal of his is that what Messi lacks in pace, he more than makes up with quickness, placement, and timing. It's a bit mesmerising...I can only imagine how it feels as an opposing keeper to watch the same thing happening right in front of you. (via devour)
Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable. He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, and probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate.
Ever since the World Cup in 2010, I've been watching a fair amount of soccer. Mostly La Liga, Premier League, and Champions League but a smattering of other games here and there. As my affection for the game has grown, I've mostly made my peace with diving. Diving in soccer is the practice of immediately falling to the ground when a foul has been committed against you (or even if one hasn't) in order to get the referee's attention. To Americans who have grown up watching American football and basketball, it is also one of the most ridiculous sights in sports...these manly professional athletes rolling around on the ground with fake injuries and then limping around the pitch for a few seconds before resuming their runs at 100% capacity. I still dislike the players who go down too often, lay it on too thick, or dive from phantom fouls, but much of the time there's only one referee and two assistants for that huge field and you're gonna get held and tackled badly so how else are you going to get that call? You dive.
Except for Lionel Messi. It's not that he never dives (he does) but he stays on his feet more often than not while facing perhaps the most intense pressure in the game. Here's a compilation video of Messi not going down:
In recent years, efforts have been made on various fronts to apply the lessons of Moneyball to soccer. I don't think diving is one of the statistics measured because if it were, it might happen a lot less. Poor tackles and holding usually occur when the player/team with the ball has the advantage. By diving instead of staying on your feet, you usually give away that advantage (unless you're in the box, have Ronaldo on your team taking free kicks, or can somehow hoodwink the ref into giving the other guy a yellow) and that doesn't make any sense to me. If you look at Messi in that video, his desire to stay upright allows him to keep the pressure on the defense in many of those situations, creating scoring opportunities and even points that would otherwise end up as free kicks. It seems to me that Messi's reluctance to dive is not some lofty character trait of his; it's one of the things that makes him such a great player: he never gives up the advantage when he has it.
Lionel Messi won the inaugural men's 2010 FIFA Ballon d'Or today, given to the best soccer player in 2010. The award was created for 2010 by merging France Football's Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, both of which Messi won last year as well.
FIFA also named the World XI team, the best eleven players in the world by position (kinda like the NFL's All-Pro team). Amazingly, six of the eleven are from a single team, Spain's FC Barcelona. (All three of the finalists for the Ballon d'Or were from Barcelona as well.)
I've been watching Barcelona this year and I'm not sure professional American sports has seen anything like what this team is1. On paper, they're the best team on the planet by a wide margin (and that includes the World Cup-winning Spanish team, where several players -- but not, notably, Messi -- overlap) and in practice they're almost as good. Many of the players coming off the bench could start on just about any other team in Europe. But they still have to play the games and having six of the best eleven players on the planet doesn't guarantee wins, especially in a strongly team-oriented sport like soccer. Still lots of fun to watch them play, though.
 Maybe the Yankees in the 30s or 40s. Or the Celtics in the 60s. But neither of those teams had the three best players in the world on their rosters. ↩
Messi simply does things -- little things and big things -- that other players here cannot do. He gets a ball in traffic, is surrounded by two or three defenders, and he somehow keeps the ball close even as they jostle him and kick at the ball. He takes long and hard passes up around his eyes and somehow makes the ball drop softly to his feet, like Keanu Reeves making the bullets fall in "The Matrix." He cuts in and out of traffic -- Barry Sanders only with a soccer ball moving with him -- sprints through openings that seem only theoretical, races around and between defenders who really are running even if it only looks like they are standing still. He really does seem to make the ball disappear and reappear, like it's a Vegas act.
I've watched just enough soccer to realize that despite having scored no goals and having, by FIFA's reckoning, only a single assist, Messi is having a great World Cup. He attracts so much attention on the pitch -- two or three defenders swarmed him on every touch in the Mexico game -- that he should get an assist on nearly every play for opening up the rest of the field for his team. It's one of those things that the new soccer fan (as many Americans are) doesn't catch onto right away. (thx, djacobs)