Commentary

Lionel Messi is still the best

Despite a comparatively lean year for Barcelona, Leo deserves plenty of praise

Updated: May 24, 2012, 5:50 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

Lionel MessiLluis Gene/AFP/Getty ImagesLionel Messi smashed many records and milestones in 2011-12; what will he do from here?

Sooner or later, we all stop and gaze in wonderment at the marvels of the world. The Great Wall of China. How was that constructed? Stonehenge, Mount Rushmore or the Taj Mahal. How is it possible that mankind managed to create something so jaw-droppingly astonishing?

In soccer terms, so it is with Lionel Andres Messi.

This season, with one rather special match still to come, he has scored 72 times for his club, FC Barcelona, five times for his country and twice in friendly matches.

All those goals, plus 27 assists, meaning that his fingerprints are on more than 100 goals for club and country this term. It is a feat of such magnificence that, for the moment, it's hard to comprehend. The record Messi broke, that of Gerd Muller at Bayern Munich (68 goals), had stood for four decades and those on the list that Muller himself superseded mostly played 30-40 years before that.

Messi's 14 goals in the Champions League this season matched a record set by Jose Altafini with Milan in 1963 -- the Argentine is achieving what no other player has been able to in the modern era while these records lay untouched.

Already, at 24, this guy is Barcelona's all-time top scorer.

I fondly recall a debate in and around FC Barcelona at the start of the season about whether, in 2011-12, Messi could score the goals that would help him surpass Cesar's age-old club record. I remember nobody at all sounding or looking confident that even this little genius was capable achieving the 54 goals before the end of May to make this possible. Yet here he is having smashed that record, too.

But what is most attractive of all is his instinct for the big game. This isn't a predator athlete who inflates his statistics simply by grazing on the weak and the slow.

Thus far Barca has won three trophies this season. The Spanish Supercup against Real Madrid was an absolute epic -- Messi scored three times and created another. The European Supercup against a thuggish Porto side was a brutal test, and Messi scored one and made one. Then, the World Club Cup final was an absolute exhibition of a performance, worthy of applause from all around the planet -- Messi scored two, made two and won man of the match.

OK, Barcelona has lately given off signs of being human after all, but even in the games that left a black stain on the season -- namely the Champions League elimination by Chelsea and defeat to Real Madrid in the Camp Nou Clasico -- Messi was at the forefront. In the CL semifinals in London, he drew top saves from Petr Cech, hit the post with a shot at the Camp Nou and assisted Andres Iniesta with a gorgeous pass.

Against Madrid it was his burst from midfield, dragging players with him like mackerel in a trawler net, which helped create Alexis' goal.

Goals are only an end in themselves as part of the entertainment packet you sign up for when you become a hopeless soccer fan (usually a life sentence). Not every team can win a trophy and so goals are the decorations throughout those lean, wilderness years. One good strike can keep you warm for months.

But for Messi and Barca, his goals have supreme importance because they want to consistently win prizes and those strikes are a means to an end.

Thus it is that, because Madrid is celebrating its status as La Liga winners and Chelsea wears the crown as champions of Europe, there seems to be a slight tendency to underplay the enormity of Messi's achievements this season.

Three trophies, a fundamental part in each one, just short of 80 goals and leadership at a time when his two main strike partners, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez, have suffered major injuries and their contributions to the team have diminished.

Meanwhile, Messi has shouldered their work.

It's right to venerate Cristiano Ronaldo for his ambitious, aggressive, thrilling and ruthless season. But it was a bit daft of Jose Mourinho to suggest that none of Messi's half-century of La Liga goals were important because Barcelona didn't win the title. How quickly would the La Liga contest have been over without the Argentinian's prolific scoring? Almost single-handedly he gave us a title race.

This summer he'll turn 25, a significant staging point.

Mature and no longer a kid, maybe, but with at least seven or eight major years still ahead of him, the junction he's reached is an intriguing one.

He's about to work under Tito Vilanova, only the third coach of his reign in the Barcelona senior team. Vilanova is one of the coaches who was in charge of Messi during his formative youth football years and has been instrumental in the flowering of the South American's genius over the past few seasons.

However, the world will be watching, hawkishly, to discover how Vilanova handles what is now an absolute megastar. In how he behaves, reacts, trains, plays and scores, Messi can help that process greatly. Bigger than that: the task ahead for Vilanova and Barcelona to try to overhaul an impressive Real Madrid outfit.

Attitudes need sharpening, hunger needs to be the middle name of every player at Camp Nou and slackness needs to be eradicated as if it were a rodent.

Messi can demonstrate standards, leadership and levels of work for others to follow, which is a byproduct of the fact that Messi is Argentine captain and thriving on that responsibility. Is there a case that after Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez, it is Messi, rather than Iniesta, Valdes or Gerard Pique, who should become captain?

Finally there is that annual garland, the Ballon D'Or.

Increasingly I'm hearing people, led by Mourinho, suggesting that in order to win the Ballon D'Or award a player must have won either the Champions League, the domestic league or a major international championship.

First, that argument ignores the three medals Messi has already won this season; second, it may also prove that Mourinho's criteria are no longer adequate; and finally, it's a clever tactic by the Madrid manager to throw some sweetmeats to his own player, Ronaldo.

However, because voting for the Ballon D'Or (Messi is already only the second person after Michel Platini to win it three straight years) is now open to all the captains and coaches of the international community and not just journalists, we will see a balanced picture in the final tally.

I suspect that Messi will win without meeting Mourinho's criteria simply because the professional footballers around the globe recognize that they are in the presence of utter genius and that scoring not far short of 100 goals in a season is a ridiculous feat.

Like the Great Wall, Mount Rushmore, the Taj Mahal or Stonehenge, Leo Messi defies belief. We could do worse than occasionally stopping to gaze at him in awe.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.