Lionel Messi, Footballing Boy Genius

The NY Times ran a big feature on 23-year-old FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi this weekend. Some are already calling him one of the best footballers ever.

During the careers of the greats to whom Messi is most often compared — Pelé of Brazil and Diego Maradona, a fellow Argentine — the pace of the game was slower, with more space to operate and more chance for flamboyant playfulness in the flowing dribbles known as gambeta.

Today, soccer increasingly relies on size and muscle and speed. The best players must be able to operate in claustrophobic spaces. That is the mesmerizing skill of Messi, slithering through these airless openings in top gear, changing direction, providing as well as scoring, his left foot tapping the ball on each stride with blurred and evasive touches. At such moments, the ball becomes an extension of his foot.

“You think of Gretzky playing hockey,” said Bob Bradley, the coach of the United States national team, who sat in the stadium in Madrid, watching the play unfold. “It sticks with you. Everybody who watches Messi knows he is pushing the highest level of the sport ever.”

Earlier in his career, Messi preferred to slash inside from the right wing, taking the ball on his dominant left foot. Now he is considered a center forward in Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation, but the position as he plays it is sometimes described as a “ghost center forward” or a “false No. 9,” a reference to the traditional jersey number worn by a striker. Instead, Messi wears No. 10, the classic playmaker’s number. He is free to drift and roam and handle the ball, to combine with Xavi and Iniesta, to seek out openings that he can exploit with his passing or his dribbling, with his chameleon eyes.

Aside from the great profile, it strikes me that America will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to soccer/football. Messi has essentially been playing the game as a pro since he was 13, when he left Argentina to join FC Barcelona’s academy.

How much better would some US athletes be if that system were in place here?

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