A Task Too Tall for a Soccer Great?

28 abril 2010 | By | Category: Argentina
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Just 22 years old, Lionel Messi has already been declared the greatest player of his generation, a star who may even have the ability to become the greatest of all time.

Listed at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 148 pounds, Mr. Messi appears both shorter and slighter than even that. He is a waif-like shrimp who has darted and wriggled his way to an absurd 35 goals in Barcelona’s 42 Spanish league and Champions League games this season.

His four-goal shredding of Aresenal three weeks ago evoked the sort of superlatives reserved for legends such as Pelé and Diego Maradona, his coach for Argentina’s national team. As the World Cup in South Africa approaches, he is the unlikeliest of characters—a tiny athlete who nevertheless terrifies opponents.

“You see a lot of similarities between him and Barry Sanders in the way they shift weight to each foot and ride off challenges,” said Alexi Lalas, the former star defender of the U.S. men’s national team.

But Wednesday’s task appears too tall even for Mr. Messi, whose club faces a 3-1 deficit as it heads into the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Inter Milan, with the winner to play Bayern Munich in the final on May 22. Defensive stalwart Carles Puyol, the heart and soul of Barca, is suspended for the match, and midfielder Andres Iniesta is injured.

Making matters more troublesome, in the first leg of the contest, a physical Inter squad came up with the right formula for stopping Mr. Messi. “They put him in a cage,” said Giorgio Chinaglia, the former Italian star. “They put three players around him, and that was spot on.”

Regardless of whether Mr. Messi and Barcelona can climb out of their hole Wednesday in front of nearly 99,000 screaming fans, Mr. Messi already appears destined for the kind of stardom reserved for only a handful of athletes in the world, especially if he can manage to carry Argentina deep into the World Cup. He earns some $46 million a year, according to France Football magazine’s annual survey of the sport’s finances. Of his total earnings, an estimated $25.3 million come from personal-endorsement deals.

A hormonal condition that stunted his growth in childhood has only made his legend larger. Soccer has always had its share of freakishly small stars, but in an era when the top ranks are filled with studs like Brazil’s Lucio and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who combine lightning speed with punishing size, Mr. Messi is the ultimate outlier. He has proved there’s still room for a tiny player and that magically quick feet will almost always win out over brute force.

“What he has you can’t teach,” said Tommy Smyth, a soccer analyst for ESPN. “He’s got such an ability to avoid tackles that being small in the game today actually helps him. He has such a low center of gravity, he drops a shoulder and goes one way and then and then it becomes impossible to catch up.”

Given that, beating Mr. Messi, or rather, figuring out how to prevent him from beating you, becomes a devil’s choice. Opponents can challenge him as soon as he receives the ball, in which case he can dart past any defender on the planet, or they can give him space and try to contain him, which only gives him room to operate and evaluate the best channels for an attack.

Inter’s plan, which was executed to near perfection last week, involved having three and four defenders collapse on Mr. Messi whenever he received the ball in the attacking third of the field.

For Mr. Messi, whose club won the Champions League last year, only success on the international pitch remains elusive. To gain a place in the “greatest ever” conversation he’ll have to lead Argentina back to a world championship for the first time since 1986.

That won’t be easy, even with Argentine stars Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero joining the attack. Statistics from last week’s match against Inter provide a blueprint for any team with designs on stopping Mr. Messi and Argentina in South Africa.

Inter actually let Barca dominate. Barca possessed the ball during 68% of the game, and playing its trademark pinball, one-touch soccer completed 635 passes compared with 257 by Inter. But Inter’s players held their positions and filled the forward passing lanes, preventing Barca from executing its attack anywhere close to Inter’s goal.

Of course mapping a strategy is one thing, and pulling it off is another, especially when a pair of feet that can dance through traffic and shoot instantly are on the other side of the ball.

“Technique is always more important than the physical aspect,” Mr. Chinaglia said. “But guys like him, who can always beat their opponent, there’s not many around.”

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One Comment to “A Task Too Tall for a Soccer Great?”

  1. Juan dice:

    Buen articulo del WSJ….

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