Lionel Messi didn’t hang around. He was sent on as a substitute against Benfica and sent through, one on one with the goalkeeper. The next thing anyone knew, he was on the floor; then he was on a stretcher, lying still in the silence, 50,000 people not making a sound. The clock had been ticking into the 85th minute and Messi was looking for his 85th goal of 2012, another record: no one had ever scored more goals in a year. He clashed with the goalkeeper, his knee shifting with the impact, but he chased the loose ball and, falling now, took on a shot. Like the final, defiant gesture of a dying man. “I thought it was the last time I would kick a ball in a very long time,” he said.
That was on Wednesday night. On Thursday – just 23 minutes into Thursday, in fact – it was revealed that it was just bruising. On Friday he was in the gym, alone. On Saturday, he trained with his team-mates. On Sunday morning he was on a plane to Seville. “If he’s coming, it’s because he can play,” said the Barcelona coach, Tito Vilanova. And on Sunday night, the news was out: Messi starts. At nine o’clock, four days after everyone feared that his chances had gone, from everything to nothing in a second, the record cruelly taken away, he lined up with his team-mates. It had almost escaped him; there was no way he was lettingthat happen again.
Sixteen minutes later, he equalled the record; nine minutes after that he had broken it. In your own time, Leo.
The previous record, 85, was held by Gerd ‘Torpedo’ Müller, the man who was on the verge of signing for Barcelona in 1973, only for the deal to fall through because the German government intervened. Barcelona signed Johan Cruyff instead. “Muller, torpedoed,” ran the headline in Marca. In 1972, Müller scored 42 goals in 34 games in the league, seven in six in the Cup, 12 in five in the League Cup, 10 in four in the European Cup, one in 4 in the Cup Winners’ Cup and 13 in seven for Germany. Messi has now scored 86 in 2012: 56 in 36 league games, three in seven in the Cup, two in two in the Super Copa, 13 in 12 in the Champions League and 12 in nine for Argentina. He already has 23 league goals this season, enough to have won the Pichichi award 26 times.
Of course there are some expressing doubts, from the difficulty of the feat to the importance of the goals, to the relevance of the record and even its veracity: football is normally measured by seasons, not years; in 72 Müller won everything there was to win, including the European Championship with Germany, Messi has claimed only the Copa del Rey in 2012; Muller took fewer games, averaging 1.41 goals a game to Messi’s 1.3; and Madrid and Barcelona’s dominance is such that records are falling with startling regularity. The seven highest points totals ever all belong to the last four years; in 2010-11, Cristiano Ronaldo broke the all-time record for league goals in a season with 41 only to be broken again by Messi, who got 50 last season.
Meanwhile, one of Spain’s most important football statisticians insists that Messi has 85 because a free-kick that the referee judged to have gone straight in against Mallorca might, he says, have been touched by Alexis on the way through, even though Alexis said it was not. And Marca also claims he is on 85, judging that his recent goal against Athletic Bilbao should in fact be credited as an own goal by Fernando Amorebieta (the referee officially ruled it was Messi’s goal) – no matter, they add, because it turns out that one of Müller’s goals was also an own goal, meaning that he has got the record this morning. On 85, not 86.
But officially, it is 86. Or, to quote the cover of El Mundo Deportivo this morning: ¡86! In its simplicity, the headline says much. About Messi’s achievement and our impotence. What more can you say? There are few words that can be employed to define Messi now. “Cristiano Ronaldo is the best of the humans,” Gerard Piqué said not long ago, “but Messi is an extraterrestrial.” On Sunday night, Piqué tweeted just two words in homage of his team-mates: “Leo” and “Messi.” There could be no greater praise. At 25, Messi has already forced everyone to use up all the superlatives. There’s little left to do except make words up or just start swearing. Few reactions do Messi justice like a: ‘fuck me!’ “Don’t try to write about him, don’t try describe him,” said Pep Guardiola. “Watch him.”
The trouble is, you have to write about him. Not least because the records keep falling. Jorge Valdano once claimed that they would have to dedicate a whole chapter of the Guinness Book of Records to Raúl. With Messi, they really might. It can seem swifter to list the records he hasn’t got than the ones he has. The records provide excuse and evidence but they also provide obligation. They are a reason, a duty, to focus on him once; excellence alone is no longer enough. But you’ll never really do him justice. It’s been like that for some time now : even if it took some people a while to see it, he has been the best for years. Pretty much since he stopped getting injured, in fact – another reason why the sight of him going off on a stretcher on Wednesday had such an impact.
Barcelona’s all-time top scorer at just 24, amongst his goals in 2012 arefive against Bayer Leverkusen. A one-off, perhaps but they set him on course to finish as the European Cup’s top scorer. For the fourth year in a row. You want him to do it in a hard league? How about the Champions League?
And for all the caveats, for all the “yeah, buts” there’s no getting away from the bottom line: 86 goals. Eighty-flipping-six. If it’s eighty-five, it’s still eighty-flipping-five. An average of a goal every 4.24 days for a year. And, yes, that includes the months when he didn’t play a match. He still has three games left to add to it: against Second Division Córdoba in the Copa del Rey, then Atlético Madrid and Valladolid in the league. “I hope to add more to it so that it is harder for the next person to come along and break,” Messi said on Sunday night. Thing is, the next person is likely to be him. Every year his stats increase. “I don’t think we’ll see anyone like him again,” said his coach, Vilanova. He could almost do a Sergey Bubka and push the bar up by a single centimetre, making the next record that little more reachable, competing against himself.
At times the consistency can serve to make it seem mundane, but it is exactly that consistency that makes it so extraordinary. The stats reinforce that fact, but the subjective is as important as the objective. You watch him score an amazing goal and it seems normal; the next week, there is another one as good. On Sunday night, the first was classic Messi: dashing across the area from right to left, escaping three or four challenges, before hitting it into the far corner. Another brilliant goal rendered normal by repetition. As for the second: a superb strike, had it not been the record-breaker it would have barely registered. Müller was a predator – that year he did not win the Balón d’Or, Cruyff did – Messi is not. And nor is about just the goals, but the fact that he isso complete. Messi scored 86 goals in 2012. He also provided 29 assists.
At the end of Sunday night’s game, which Barcelona were fortunate to win against an impressive Betis side, Messi swapped shirts with Antonio Amaya and was stopped by Canal Plus’s touchline reporter. He talked as the rest headed inside. “What’s the next challenge?”, he was asked. “Córdoba”, Messi said. And with that he turned and headed to the dressing room, where his team-mates were waiting. As he walked through the door, they stood up and gave him a round of applause.
Culled from The Guardian