family saunter up the tree-lined Rambla Catalunya in central Barcelona on
Sunday afternoon. Dad admires the giant Audi people carrier which stops in
traffic alongside them, while mum tries to stop her two kids from working out
who is driving behind the blacked out windows.
Messi!" shouts the oldest child. "It's Lionel Messi."
best footballer could have shot off in his high-powered motor, but instead
lowered the windows and posed for two quick photos with the boys, taken with
their father's phone. Messi's long-time girlfriend in the passenger seat smiles
and points to indicate that the traffic lights have changed. The windows go up
and the Messi-mobile zooms off.
you think he's the best player ever?" asks a man walking up the street.
"Because I do."
That man in
is better qualified than most. Arnau Riera was Messi's captain for the 2004-05
season for Barca's B team. Messi hadn't spotted his former team-mate - who has
just recovered from two serious injuries to make a comeback in the Spanish
third division - and their worlds no longer coincide; but Arnau has nothing but
praise for the Argentine. No players accuse him of being arrogant or 'big time'
- a mortal sin for any footballer from Rochdale to Real Madrid.
about who is the best player ever are subjective. There can be no definitive
answer, and it is impossible to compare different generations; but a holy
trinity of Pele, Maradona and Johan Cruyff seems to exist. You will find
Spaniards adding Alfredo Di Stefano or Ferenc Puskas to that list; the Dutch
and Milanese cite Marco van Basten; Britons mention George Best, Bobby Charlton
and Stanley Matthews; Germans idolise Franz Beckenbauer; in Portugal Eusebio is
king; and in France Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini are legendary. And there
is probably a Wolves fan who thinks Steve Bull is the greatest footballer to
have trodden the earth.
only 24, but he is already up with that legendary historical triumvirate. He
found out on Sunday morning that he had made the 23-man shortlist of the Ballon
d'Or yet again - far from a surprise, of course. He is the overwhelming
favourite to win the trophy for the third successive year, matching Platini's
achievement in the 1980s with that great Juventus side.
annihilating records season after season. He is already the second-highest
goalscorer in Barca's history, and surpassed the 200-goal mark for the club
against the Czech champions Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday in Prague. His
consistency remains remarkable - he has scored more goals in each successive
season that he has played for Barca, bar one.
saw him record a hat-trick in the first 29 minutes of the game against Mallorca
for his 17th, 18th and 19th goals of the season. Tuesday night saw him add yet
another hat-trick with goals 200, 201 and 202 for Barca. Few thought that he
would beat last season's total of 53 goals for Barca - a club record for a
single season - but he's already on 22 goals from just 17 matches. That's a
strike rate of 1.29 goals per game. He played 55 matches last season; if he
carries on at his current rate, he'll hit over 70 goals this term. That won't
happen, but Messi's goal ratio continues to increase.
maturing off the field too. He may have a shy and quiet demeanour, but he's a
confident lad who knows exactly what he wants, whether it's a modelling
contract with Dolce & Gabbana, Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of the door or to
dodge speaking to the media for six months.
Pep Guardiola he has someone who indulges his genius, his foibles. Before the
Mallorca game Guardiola said: "Messi knows very well what we all think, all of
the coaching staff, the people that look after him, and the other players,
"We are all
delighted with what he does, has done and will do. And of course nothing that
we have done would have been possible without him.
"He is a
different kind of player, his stats make him different and he lets you win
games at all levels. There is never a
game in which he doesn't generate chances. I don't think there has ever been a
player in history that can do what he manages to do every three days. People
buy tickets just to see him play and he is doing something unique.
"To find a
player that has managed to be so consistent for four years, who is so fit, who
fights so hard as him, I've never seen anything like it."
is not predisposed to such praise, but you couldn't stop the Barca coach.
I'm too young," he concluded, "but I never played with anybody like him and I
have never coached a player like that either. He is a better player than
anybody else; he has a gift."