Barcelona members have approved the Qatar foundation sponsorship and Real Madrid members have approved record-breaking revenues and plans to ‘wrap’ the Estadio Bernabeu. But this week’s major issue among the twin giants of the Spanish game concerns Leo Messi.
His weekend hat-trick in Barcelona’s 5-0 trashing of Atletico de Madrid fired him to within reach of the mark set by club legend Ladislav Kubala and sparked new considerations of whether it is possible to define greatness in football.
Messi, at the tender age of 24, has scored 192 goals in competitive appearances for Barcelona. Kubala scored 194 after having arrived in Barcelona from Hungary in 1950 at 23 and leaving in 1961 at 34. It was his brilliance which prompted the club’s decision in 1957 to quit the old Les Corts home for the new Camp Nou.
Now Barcelona are talking again about how to refine and improve their home on the back of the momentum generated by the past few years and the apparently limitless potential of the team while Messi is ruling the world.
Since his debut on October 16, 2004, Messi has scored 127 goals in La Liga, 37 in the Champions League, two in the Club World Cup, one in the European Supercup, eight in the Spanish Supercup and 17 in the Spanish cup. Those goals include 11 hat-trick and one five-goal display.
In Kubala’s day, clubs did not play as many games. Indeed, he did not have the opportunity to play in European competition in the first six years of his reign in Barcelona, with the occasional exception of the end-of-season Latin Cup.
Thus he needed 11 years – not a ‘mere’ seven – to run up his 194 shared between 131 in the league, 49 in the cup, seven in the European Champions Cup, six in the Fairs Cup (forerunner of the Europa League) and one in the Latin Cup. He scored seven goals in one game on one occasion, five once, four once and 13 hat-tricks.
But greatness is not measured only in terms of goals. It is defined in terms of footballing charisma, about influence or directional change for a club or a country or even the worldwide game either in an era or over subsequent decades.
Pele is considered great because he had such an explosive impact on the World Cup, transforming the status of both the competition and of Brazilian football (Brazil had never won the World Cup pre-Pele). Also, Pele was at his zenith at the pivotal explosion of colour television and intercontinental satellite transmission.
Alfredo Di Stefano is considered great because he was the charismatic power at the heart and head of the Real Madrid who capitalised brilliantly on the potential created by the foundation of the European Champions Cup, enabled by the jet engine and floodlighting. The glamour of Di Stefano and his Madrid set a new standard which revolutionised ambition within the game and, subsequently, its finance (viz Champions League) and over-arching worldwide popularity.
UEFA president Michel Platini believes it is impossible to compare players from different eras. He says: “Pele in his time, Cruyff in his, Zidane in his and now Messi – are all great players in their own era and context and that is all you can say.”
But the fascination of Messi is his apparently limitless potential considering how much he has achieved already – his goals plus 17 major trophies – and all before he has even reached his mid-20s.
Messi’s temperament is remarkable and his appetite for success is prodigious. He is already talking, in modest enough terms too which is impressive, of going past the Kubala mark and chasing down the all-time Barcelona marksmanship record which is 235 goals, set by centre-forward Cesar Rodriguez between 1942 y 1955 . . . before ANY European competition.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then so, perhaps, is greatness. Happily and hopefully we can go on ‘beholding’ Leo Messi for a very long time.