When Lionel Messi was aged eleven doctors diagnosed him with a growth hormone deficiency. The prescribed course of treatment cost $900 a month. His family couldn’t afford it, and River Plate, the Argentine club interested in signing the working-class prodigy, felt disinclined to foot the bill. Barcelona seized the opportunity, coughed up for the medical expenses, and the rest is history in the making, as we saw with awe against Arsenal last Wednesday night.
Maybe it’s partly for this reason that Messi feels such an affinity with the Catalan kingpins, something that’s caused him to be outcast, almost, in Argentina, whose supporters claim he’s closer to a Spanish senorita than Eva Peron. His national team manager Diego Maradona has been reluctant to cosset the 22-year-old he calls his “successor”, giving rise to speculation that jealousy (on the elder’s part) may be at the root of their supposedly lukewarm relationship and Messi’s less-than-sensational form for his country in comparison to that for his club.
He’s without question the best player in the world at present, and by a long chalk. It’s impossible to imagine Rooney or Ronaldo so singularly destroying a side like Arsenal, as Messi did with a four-goal salvo that was stunning in its execution and poise (even if Wayne’s most recent display against the Gunners was as good as any seen in the Premier League this season). His goals-to-games ratio in Spain and Europe brooks no argument.
But how to judge whether ‘Leo’ is the greatest ever, whenever the time comes? Maradona is most people’s modern-day touchstone. For all his madness and self-destructiveness, Diego’s brilliance was undeniable. And it needs to be taken into account that the squat but uniquely-skilled playmaker who dominated the 1986 World Cup and made an otherwise non-descript Napoli Serie A champions had the legs kicked off him (with the authorities’ ambivalence) throughout his career. Pele likewise.
Messi, and his millions of admirers (mass media helping his cause célèbré) are lucky that his mesmerizing talents are of an era where they are appreciated and protected.