WASHINGTON D.C. — If you were going to construct the perfect male athlete, you would start with Michael Phelps’s torso and J.J. Watt’s shoulders. You’ll need to borrow Tom Brady’s right arm and Clayton Kershaw’s left, Manny Pacquiao’s fists and Usain Bolt’s quads.
And you will want Lionel Messi’s feet.
Those feet. Those magnificent feet.
Soccer is the world’s game. It’s also the feet’s game. Unless you are a goalkeeper, feet are essential to success. Many a great athlete has failed in soccer because, despite strength, endurance and smarts, they lacked creative feet. In the modern era, no set is better than Messi’s — quick as a hummingbird’s wings with a cotton touch, mesmerizing and punishing.
He is in Washington for the first time during a pitch-perfect 11-year career to play in Argentina’s friendly against El Salvador on Saturday afternoon at FedEx Field. Messi, 27, and the star-sparkled squad are practicing at Georgetown all week. Though officially closed to the public, Tuesday’s session drew hundreds of spectators to the outer fences of Shaw Field.
A few hours before the workout, reports surfaced in Spain that he had hurt his right foot in a match against nemesis Real Madrid on Sunday. Like a thunderstorm rolling through the pampas, rumors boomed across social media. With medical reassurance from Argentine soccer authorities, though, the tempest passed. Messi, and those feet, are fine.
Soccer is not a game of numbers. Statistics are scant. Performances are difficult to quantify. There are no slugging percentages or quarterback ratings to define a player’s value. Who’s to say whether a defensive midfielder had a good game? Watching soccer is like attending opera; individual interpretation varies.
In the case of Messi, and other elite scorers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the numbers are irrefutable. For Barcelona, he has recorded 397 goals in 466 appearances across all competitions. He has added 45 in 97 games for Argentina, four coming during La Albiceleste’s run to the World Cup final last summer in Brazil.
He is the greatest scorer in Spain’s La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, the sport’s ultimate club competition. In 2011-12, he notched 50 goals in league outings and 23 in others for a world-record 73 in just 60 games.
His greatness is defined, however, by the manner he has gone about it — with style and elegance, dance moves on a grass-covered stage.
Often times, the assists are as memorable as the goals.
Ray Hudson, the former D.C. United coach who calls Barcelona games regularly for Miami-based TV outlet beIN Sports, described a recent Messi assist this way: “The touch of the pass, with the outside of his Stradivarius, is softer than the moonlight in Tuscany.”
Messi’s collection of spices includes nutmeg. In soccer, a nutmeg is the act of pushing the ball between an opponent’s legs for the purpose of shooting, passing or retaining possession.
Last week, in the same Champions League match that he nutmegged Manchester City’s Fernandinho, he did it to James Milner, who was left slipping two-footed on the grass in defeat and embarrassment. It was the equivalent of being posterized by Michael Jordan, replayed a million times around the world.
In a video clip that went viral almost immediately after the Milner moment, Bayern Munich Coach Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona manager who was in attendance, was caught by a TV camera gasping in astonishment and putting his face into his hands.
Ronaldo, the flashy Real Madrid attacker, has won the past two world player of the year awards after Messi claimed the previous four. But Messi’s all-around performance against Manchester City — he assisted on the lone goal with a lovely run and put on an extraordinary display of ball control and passing throughout the evening — reminded the soccer world that he is the best of his generation.
Maybe, some say, the best ever — though fans of Pele and Diego Maradona would beg to differ. The Brazilian and Argentine greats raised World Cup trophies; Messi has not.
Nonetheless, former English star and current TV pundit Gary Lineker proclaimed on Twitter after the Barcelona-Manchester City affair: “Messi is indisputably the greatest player ever to don a pair of football boots. Don’t even attempt to argue the point.”
Four days after that game, Messi assisted on the opening goal in Barcelona’s 2-1 victory over Real in El Clasico, the sport’s greatest rivalry. Barca leads Real by four points through 28 of 38 league matches. Messi is atop the scoring chart with 32 goals, one ahead of Ronaldo.
Messi’s gems are the antithesis to soccer’s ugly side: FIFA chicanery, match-fixing scandals and racial incidents. Not all is well on Planet Futbol. But with Messi in full bloom, the game is forever beautiful.
“Messi is the best player in history,” Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez said. “He’s only competing against himself because he has no rival.”
© 2015, The Washington Post