Updated: Feb 12, 2020
All you can do is applaud,” said Diego Simeone. The Atletico Madrid coach had just seen his team succumb to another Lionel Messi wonder goal and he could not stop himself from showing his appreciation for his fellow Argentinian from the touchline.
Collecting the ball 50 yards out on the right-hand flank in front of the watching Simeone, and with a sea of Atletico shirts in front of him, Messi advanced towards goal, exchanged passes with Luis Suarez and side-footed a fierce low shot into the corner of the net. The impossibly difficult made to look effortlessly simple. It was typically Messi.
If any other player had broken the deadlock in a top-of-the-table clash with an 86th-minute winner they would be feted and their goal endlessly replayed. But for Messi it was just another day at the office, his individual brilliance carrying Barcelona to a 1-0 victory and keeping them on top of La Liga as the campaign headed towards Christmas.
The consistency of his performances makes it easy to run out of superlatives to describe Messi, and the “Greatest of All Time” debate will rage on. But, ultimately, stats and facts will trump emotions and opinions. And nobody in the modern game can match the individual records set by Messi since he made his Barca debut at the age of 17 in October 2004.
Last season he provided more assists and more goals than anyone else, was Europe’s top scorer with 36 goals in 34 league games to win another GoldenLast season he provided more assists and more goals than anyone else, was Europe’s top scorer with 36 goals in 34 league games to win another Golden Shoe and he was also the Champions League’s top scorer.
More recently, his goal against Borussia Dortmund made the German side the 34th different team he has scored against in Europe, beating the record of Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul. A week later he recorded a 35th Liga hat-trick as Barcelona thrashed Real Mallorca 5-2, breaking another record previously held by Ronaldo.
He is the greatest goalscorer in La Liga history, with 431 in 462 games by the middle of December 2019, and he has also contributed the most assists, 173 and counting.
His stats for the 2019 calendar year are also extraordinary: games 54, goals 46, assists 17.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde acknowledges that he has been a witness to history. “You are aware of the privilege you have [by coaching Messi], but sometimes the day-to-day doesn’t allow you to enjoy it,” he says.
“Over time, you enjoy it more. I’m aware of it. I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve coached Leo.
“Just like how our elders talk about Di Stefano, we can say that we have been here at the same time as Messi.”
Messi turns 33 in June, so talk of retirement is no longer fanciful; it is the uncomfortable reality that has to be addressed. “It seems natural, something normal,” says Valverde. “In the end, he’s 32 and he’s not going to retire tomorrow. “It’s something he doesn’t have in his head but it’s there. When a player goes past 30 he always thinks about it.
“You have to look at it in a natural way. When the years go by there will come a time he will leave football, but it will not be now.”
Messi’s current Barcelona contract runs until the summer of 2021, but the reality is that the situation is far more fluid. There is believed to be a clause in the contract that allows him to leave at the end of each season. So he can name his price to stay, or go.
He has talked in the past about a move back to Rosario to end his career in his home town with Newell’s Old Boys. But life in Barcelona – where he, his wife Antonetta and their three sons Thiago, Mateo, and Ciro – is settled and secure.
After titles at under-20 and under- 23 level, success at senior international level remains the glaring omission from Messi’s stellar CV. The 2020 Copa America, to be joint-staged by his own country and Colombia, maybe his best chance of success.
Messi scored the only goal of November’s friendly against Brazil in Saudi Arabia following his return to the international fold in the wake of his post-Copa America ban. His claim that the tournament was “fixed for Brazil” earned him a four-game suspension – but it was also an indication of his determination to assume leadership of the national side, where confidence is returning under Lionel Scaloni.
Messi will be 35 when the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar. Will that be a suitable stage for him to bow out on a high?
In the meantime, we can only sit back and marvel at the contribution to the global game of Lionel Andres Messi, 2019 World Player of the Year.