I've lived in Singapore, London, Hong Kong, Bangalore, Birmingham, Frankfurt (Oder) and now Mumbai. After studying Business & International Relations at Aston University and the European University Viadrina, I joined Forbes India Magazine. I love writing about young people and I'm particularly interested in sports entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and people who use data to make the world simpler.
Everyone plays football. Lionel Messi is playing something else right now. Every week he gives football fans something new to coo and fawn over. His close control while running at speed is something only his prodigiously gifted Barcelona team-mate, Andrés Iniesta, can better. The general public have begun to ask what football fans have been asking for while: is he the greatest footballer of all time?
A couple of weeks ago, Messi scored his 86th of the year, surpassing Gerd Müller's record for the most goals scored for club and country in a single calendar year (the German 'hitman', scored 85 goals in 60 games in 1978). The Argentinean 'flea' has since scored 5 more to take his tally for the year to 91. A new record and a new benchmark for everyone else.
It's not just the number of goals he's scored, but the finesse and effortlessness with which he scores goals that takes your breath away. It's reached a stage where if you give him the ball inside the box, he will hit the target and, chances are, the shot will curl into the far corner. He's made those dribble-and-finish goals that used to make fans ooh and aah the done thing. Watching his 91 goals this past year are ten minutes well spent.
Messi is one of the most ubiquitously loved athletes on the planet because of his attitude, his commitment, his sportsmanship and his modesty. He has won over neutral fans like no other; even Real Madrid fans will grudging accept his quality in spite of their own talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, providing Messi admirable competition season after season.
Speaking of Ronaldo brings me to the main point of this post.
Recently, there has been a slightly worrying trend. Fans have begun to castigate Ronaldo for what they perceive as his arrogance, poor attitude and cheating, and contrasting him—unfavourably—with Messi on those counts.
Myopia is a condition most of us football fans suffer from when it comes to assessing players. I love Messi as much as anyone, but it's time to take off our rose-tinted glasses. One must be consistent in what one praises or condemns.
Lionel Messi is no angel. He is emotional like you and I, and he has the same flaws as any footballer. He takes after his legendary Argentinian spiritual forebear, Diego Maradona, in many ways. His jinking runs and sublime left-footed curlers are reminiscent of the controversial, stocky, curly-haired star of the 80s. But he also shares a more sinister trait: he has scored with his hand and claimed it. Against local rivals Espanyol in the 2006/07 season, he gave us his rendition of the 'Hand of God.'
He was young, he was naive and it was a big game but he still cheated. And celebrated. It was bad sportsmanship but a year later he did something that is frowned upon even outside the football pitch: he spat at his opponent. The Málaga player, Duda, had his back turned and Messi fired off a different kind of shot.
That night, like in most games he plays, his opponents kicked him and kicked him and kicked him some more. The pitch was totally water-logged and his ankles were bruised from being battered unceremoniously by defenders. But he got up and got on with it like he usually does. Then his emotions got the better of him and he made a mistake; one I'm sure he regrets. Spitting at an opponent usually gets a lot of media attention but this incident was not really covered by the press as much as other infamous liquid projectiles. For instance, Messi's former coach at Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard, is regularly reminded of this crime. Few teams have systematically tried to bring down Messi more than Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid. You can begrudge Lionel some frustration after the scissor tackles and covert elbows he gets during El Clásico matches between Spain's two most successful teams. You struggle, though, to forgive behaviour like this.
Is Messi the first player to smash the ball into spectators? No. In fact Rio Ferdinand infamously smashed a ball into his own fans at Old Trafford in frustration. In Messi's case, the hostile fans had been booing, swearing and snarling at him all game. Players get angry. They make mistakes. Actions like these, from little Lionel, do not however fit the image of the perfect, angelic role model that is often projected on to him! We judge his goal-scoring by the standards by which we evaluate his contemporaries, so we must judge his faults by the same measure.
When it comes to one of modern football's darker aspects, we must be clear: Messi has dived. He is not a 'diver'—whatever that means—but has collapsed theatrically to the turf on more than one occasion. He is famous for staying on his feet even after atrocious challenges rain down on him from talentless cloggers who want to scythe him down. On one level it's understandable that once or twice, he wants to go to ground a little easy, when he sees a crunching tackle coming in that may or may not win the ball but which will definitely hurt him. The sad thing is that even football's most praised ambassador is guilty of committing a crime for which lesser players are permanently branded villains.
Messi dives—but then most players these days do. It is more a reflection of the game today than of his integrity as a player. As sports fans, we suspend reality for a while and pour all our joy into our heroes without considering all the facts or facets of their character. The double-standards that are often thrown around when the inevitable comparisons between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are made are seldom examined. It is fair to prefer Messi as a player because of his footballing abilities, but it is totally unfair to disregard Ronaldo because of his footballing sins. When people say they "I hate Cristiano Ronaldo", it's always interesting to ask why. One often finds the reasons are shallow and allegations about the Portuguese goal machine's character can be leveled at pretty much every footballer today, Messi included.
This curious 'two-party system' has led to the general feeling that as a football fan you have to choose between liking Messi or liking Ronaldo, an absurd and tiring fallacy. Every week one scores a brilliant goal only for the other to better it. Ronaldo broke the record for most goals scored in the Spanish league in a season and Messi smashed it. There was a time where the two of them were arguably on par with each other. Now however, Messi has reached a new level of performance and Ronaldo, Iniesta and indeed the rest of the world, have been left in his wake. One should enjoy Messi for his football and Ronaldo for his. One should be able to enjoy their vastly different styles and applaud the new heights to which Messi, Ronaldo and Iniesta have raised the sport. As fans we mustn't lose ourselves in Messi-mania. He is human.
Messi is what people want football to be: skill that triumphs over brawn, modesty that smothers arrogance, finesse that trumps power, attack that beats defence. Perhaps that is why all of us turn a blind eye to the messiah's sins.
PS. Just today, Sky Sports released a wonderful 22 minute documentary on Messi's footballing upbringing in Barcelona and the incredible year he's had. Enjoy!