Lionel Messi at 200
When Lionel Messi steamrolls past yet another awe-inspiring milestone, do you think he even notices? At only age 24, the nimble-heeled Argentine forward has been gleefully piling up accolades, record-setting moments and enough individual awards to cover the expansive Nou Camp field. His latest achievement is 200 goals for Barcelona in 286 games, putting him a mere handful of hat tricks behind the all-time goals leader, Cesar Rodriguez. (Excluding friendlies, Cesar tallied 235 times for the Blaugrana over 13 seasons from 1939-55, while the unofficial record belongs to Paulino Alcantara, who scored 357 from 1912-27.)
While Messi's achievements to date would be Hall of Fame-worthy -- for comparative purposes, AS Roma's current legend, Francesco Totti, didn't score his 200th until he was 32 -- it's evident from Leo's La Liga dominance, and the sobering notion that most players don't "peak" until they turn 27, that the tiny Argie still has nearly a decade ahead of him in which to utterly demolish the sports record books in a way that hasn't been witnessed since Wayne Gretzky made fools of everyone on the ice. The fact that he does it all with such childlike joy makes his rampant performances even more unsettling, like watching an executioner smile as he spring-loads the guillotine.
Looking past the fact that few in Messi's peer group are able to match his prolific output -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid's totem, outscored Super Leo by nine goals in La Liga last season, yet barely seems to register on the news wire by comparison -- you'll notice that the Barca star is managing to keep pace with plenty of pre-1970s goal-scoring machines -- players whom, we have been led to believe, enjoyed generous defending and tactics more in line with Redknappian "Just %$&^%$# Run About" than any of today's Opta-driven micromanagement.
These other-era terminators included: Alfredo "The Blond Arrow" di Stefano, who scored 484 in 661 games yet didn't notch 200 until age 28. Ferenc Puskas, the cornerstone of Hungary's "Magical Magyars" and responsible (along with di Stefano) for bringing three European Cups and five consecutive La Liga titles to Real Madrid from 1958-66, hit his 200th at age 22 and ended his career with 616 in 620. Then there's Eusebio, the Mozambique-born Portuguese striker known as "The Black Panther," who muscled to the 200 mark by 23 en route to 727 career goals in 715 games. And already, the remarkable Messi threatens to blow past them all -- much like the legions of La Liga defenders routinely left in his wake.
Even the Argentine to whom he's most frequently compared, Diego Maradona, didn't nail 200 until the age of 25 at the height of his Serie A pomp with Napoli (career total: 311 goals), while the original Ronaldo, three-time world player of the year and holder of two World Cups, was also slow by Messi-esque standards in reaching 200 by age 26, en route to a final club tally of 352.
So how does Messi manage to score at such breakneck speed? His individual talent is indisputable, but he's also the attacking linchpin of the most dominant club team in the modern era, for which a three-goal win is considered "business as usual."
Just look at Barca's 2010-11 season: In 55 games, Pep Guardiola's men tallied three goals or more on 27 occasions -- managing five or more in 10 matches -- and won 34 games by two goals or more, unimpeachable proof that if you simply hang around the penalty area in a Barca shirt, you'll get plenty of chances to score. And yet, playing the role of a wider forward in a 4-3-3, Messi still converts nearly 2-to-1 over the next-highest Barca player (31 in 31 La Liga contests for Messi; David Villa was second with 18 in 32).
Two hundred goals may not have the same ring to it as 600 home runs or 3,000 hits in baseball -- or even Wilt Chamberlain's claims of 20,000 (I'll leave that for you to Google) -- but the development of soccer from a sport that revolved around its iconic, larger-than-life goal scorers into a carefully plotted, tactically nuanced true team game has meant that while teams still score plenty of goals, you're seeing the glory spread more evenly between strikers and attacking midfielders alike.
Yet above all the X's and O's and managerial maneuvering, Lionel Messi is unstoppable, and though he may never reach Pele's all-time scoring record of 1,281 goals, it won't matter. Pele might continue to preach that "La Pulga" is not even close to matching him for the best all-time, but for our generation -- and everyone born since the mercurial Brazilian retired in 1977 -- it's easy to disagree. Just look at the numbers.
James Tyler is a freelance writer who has worked for ESPN The Magazine. He was the founder and editor of Unprofessional Foul, and has written for Run of Play and Time magazine. He can be found on Twitter at @UFJamesT.
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