Yeah. That’s right. The title isn’t a typo, you didn’t skip a page, and your eyes are fine. Lionel Messi, the greatest footballer of all time, isn’t number one on this list.
You may have spent hours carefully perusing each of the past 48 rankings, or you may have flipped/scrolled to the front two in seconds, eager to discover the winner. You might be disappointed, you might be seething. Let me just say this: I understand your anger. I don’t blame you if you want to tear this list to shreds, or Google my personal information and send a strongly worded letter to my college demanding my expulsion. Seven months ago, I would have done the same. Who does this bombastic, self-loathing college kid think he is? My GOAT only has one place, and it’s number one.
I write this with about ten Lionel Messi jerseys in my bedroom. I am solely responsible for ranking Messi #2. I could have pushed this article off to someone else, a more deserving Messi appreciator, perhaps, but I needed to justify his placement. Lionel Messi is the reason I started watching football, ergo, the reason I created Breaking The Lines, ergo, the reason I am writing this. So, let’s put my teen angst and overarching guilt to the side for a second, I’m here to talk to you about football’s lord and savior: Lionel Andrés Messi.
I had the pleasure of seeing Lionel Messi last August, in Stockholm’s modern colossus of Friends Arena. I heard a million different languages murmur and gasp as Messi picked apart Leicester City, en route to a 4-2 win in the International Champions Cup. Here’s the catch though — he didn’t score a single goal. No, Messi ran the show, playing a huge role in each of the first half’s three goals. First, he slipped a perfect through ball in behind Danny Simpson for Munir to slot in, then, he combined with Luis Suárez for the second, and finally, he instigated the counterattack for the third just before halftime. This wasn’t just another Messi masterclass, it was a crystal ball for the coming season.
This season, Lionel Messi managed to have the greatest playmaking season of his career while simultaneously scoring more goals than any player in Europe. This was done despite a summer transfer window consisting of buying mostly unproven squad filler, the loss of his #1 partner in crime (Dani Alves), and the demise of an already broken relationship between Luis Enrique and the locker room. Enrique chopped and changed the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with wingbacks (a la Conte) to a 3-4-3 diamond style (a la Cruyff), but the one constant was Lionel Messi coming up clutch, be it in the dying moments to rescue a point, or in the opening minutes to open up a rampage. As good as Neymar, Busquets, and others were, this was, in many ways, a one man team. This season, Messi maintained a consistency that no other player on the planet could achieve, leaving no excuses for himself. Despite being outplayed for much of the game, Barcelona wrecked Manchester City 4-0 due to a Messi hat-trick. Three days later, he notched a brace against Valencia — including a last-second, do-or-die penalty — to leave the Mestalla with three points. A few weeks later, when the Jorge Sampaoli-Monchi duo was the hottest pair the game had seen since Yorke-Cole, Messi defeated Sevilla in a come-from-behind win, scoring and setting up Suárez for the winner.
Through his pure genius, be it efficient finishing, daring through balls or outright witchcraft, Messi dragged Barcelona into a title race they had no business being in. At 29, he maintained incredible fitness (out for 30 calendar days throughout the entire season, according to Transfermarkt), and served as a Band-Aid for an incredibly thin, poorly drawn squad. It was like seeing the badass protagonist in a Kurosawa remake, who dodges all the bullets, sidesteps the falling pianos, and saunters through the firefights, only this time, the rival shogunate destroys his village just seconds before he returns home.
It was magical, it was mystifying, and yet, in some ways, it was a bit depressing. The fact that FC Barcelona, formerly known as the best team in the world, resorted to dire football, hooked on the life support machine known as Messi dependency, was depressing. It reminded me of his Albiceleste days, especially that June 2016 final in New York, where he dribbled from the halfway line to the penalty box, going past the entire Chile team, only to be stopped by Arturo Vidal.
A few weeks ago, I ranked Lionel Messi’s 30 greatest goals. The highest-ranked goal from this past season (#18) was a perfectly-placed free kick against Villarreal (https://twitter.com/breakingIines/status/878671926692073474). Look at the celebration. Most players would tear their shirts off at the thought of replicating that free kick, let alone doing it in the dying moments, as your team is losing. Messi doesn’t even grin. He embraces Neymar, wallows in a group hug for a second, then quickly trots back to the halfway line in hopes of securing a late winner. I remember watching that goal live. As a full-fledged Messi appreciator, I gasped in awe that a free kick could be so flawlessly placed. There are probably Marine snipers and professional darts players who saw that goal and said, “Damn, that accuracy is unheard of.”
And yet, as a Barça fan, I grimaced, like there was a prickling sensation in my stomach. The fact that Barcelona needed a godly free kick from Messi to gain a point against Villarreal, a Villarreal team that sacked their coach just days before the season began, that never came close to challenging Sevilla for the final Champions League spot, is indicative of Messi’s unique power to change a game in a matter of seconds, and yet is also indicative of Barcelona’s Messi dependency. It’s like flying down to Tanzania to gaze at the snows of Kilimanjaro, and then realizing that they will have melted away within 15 years due to global warming.
Ernest Hemingway starts his 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” with a random detail about Mount Kilimanjaro, saying, “Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Hemingway’s short story was fictional, but that particular anecdote is true. In 1926, a Russian pastor named Richard Reusch stumbled upon a freeze-dried leopard at around 18,500 feet, and, a few hundred feet later, found the frozen goat he was chasing.
For some, Messi is the goat, but in this past season, Messi was the leopard. He dared to dream and chase the goat, he dared to go against the laws of physics and mother nature, challenging the greatest squad of all time to a foot race, and nearly won.
It depends on your perspective. When Messi has to score a brace, including an actual buzzer beater, at the Bernabéu, it’s thrilling and lifts your soul. When Messi has to score a brace, including a semi-buzzer beater, against Leganés, it’s disconcerting, and it makes you more cynical.
Still, that leopard is being cryogenically frozen — I’m told it has been moved from Ibiza to Antigua this summer — and it’ll come out roaring and hungry for revenge this August. Sure as the sun will rise, he will be there. Lionel Messi is 30 years old, recently married, and health permitting, in less than a year, will play in his 4th World Cup. Other than faint rumors of a Marco Verratti deal, the one thing Messi fans can be optimistic about is the promising partnership between Lionel Messi and Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli. I suppose Sampaoli could’ve gone to Barcelona, but (1) FC Barcelona’s board prefers more conservative choices for manager, and (2) this coming World Cup is so crucial to Lionel Messi’s legacy. I’m sure many Barcelona fans (myself included) would suffer through two trophyless seasons to see Messi win the World Cup. But I suppose that too is a matter of perspective. You could say that Argentina has chronically underachieved — having lost the three past finals, but looking at the squad, the coaches, and the quality of football, you could also say they overachieved, and that they would’ve struggled to make the semis without Messi.
Is Messi dependency healthy? Is it natural? After all, we may not see another player like this ever, so it is somewhat impossible to not build your team around him. Is it conducive to winning titles? Is it inherently a fact of life, or is it a myth that needs busting? Is Messi’s greatness a renewable resource, or an artesian well that will be dried up soon? All of these questions will be answered by scientists, poets, and perhaps theologians after me. The only thing I know is that the leopard will rise again.
By: Zach Lowy/@ZCalcio