How far can one man distort the boundaries of footballing genius? Lionel Messi’s seemingly unrelenting crusade to solidify himself as one of the greatest, if not the greatest players of all time, seems set to sweep up another milestone along the way, with the announcement of the Fifa Ballon d’Or winner in Zurich in January.
The Barcelona forward is the bookies’ favourite to pick up an unprecedented fourth win on the bounce, after a calendar year which has seen him put away an almost ridiculous 80 goals and counting for both club and country. To many, he seems almost untouchable; a footballing deity who boasts a resume which appears flawless in just about every way possible.
In oh so many ways, Lionel Messi is incomparable to his peers (a certain Cristiano Ronaldo may object to that), but it’s not only his on field genius that has placed him on a different plateau of recognition.
Of course, such is the fierceness in which Messi guards his private life, the Argentine could theoretically dress up as Captain Scarlett and strut around his front room in a pair of high heels for all we know, but from what we do, he appears as close to flawless as we could possibly come to expect in the world of football.
And it’s the humbleness, the amiability, the penchant for normality and the introvert of the man off the football pitch, which in some ways, only assists in catapulting him into a realm of his own.
Because not all the geniuses to have graced the game have been as apparently flawless as Messi. In fact if anything, it’s quite the opposite.
History suggests that a flaw or two in either your personal or footballing repertoire hardly denies you entry into the pantheon of greats. When Messi does eventually find himself there, providing he keeps his head screwed on for the rest of his career, he’ll be the squeakiest clean black sheep you’re every likely to find.
Think of his countryman, Diego Maradona. One of the greatest of them all and for the romanticists out there, maybe the greatest there ever will be. A man whose talent knew no boundaries, a player who was capable of single handedly dismantling the teams and winning the greatest prize of them all on his own – a World Cup winning feat that his heir to the crown is yet to complete.
But what of his supposed flaws? Could you imagine the reaction in today’s world if Messi developed a cocaine addiction, developed alleged links with the mafia and attacked a group of journalists with an air rifle? El Diego’s flaws bordered on the downright outrageous, but they haven’t changed a single thing he ever did on the football pitch.
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Zinedine Zidane was widely considered to be the greatest player of his generation. The closest thing to Van Gough we have seen on the football field, the man was an artist, a visionary. But similarly to the Dutch painter, he was also a bit, well, mental. A raft of stamps, headbutts and spiteful acts punctuated his career, culminating in his infamous assault on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. If you did that in any other walk of life, you might end up in a police cell. But it still didn’t take away that volley in the 2002 Champions League final or his France 98 World Cup victory.
George Best was plagued by alcoholism and a nose for the hedonistic, but he remains immortalized at Old Trafford to this very day. Paul Gascoigne has had some very dark personal moments indeed, yet none of that has dampened his exploits in an England shirt at Italia 90. The list goes on.
The point here is, the notion of a flawed genius is relatively flawed itself, simply on the premise that a footballer’s shortcoming on or off the pitch, will always be superseded by their achievements upon it – if they’re good enough, of course.
It’s arguable as to even if Luis Suarez single handedly catapulted Liverpool to a Premier League title, people would ever forget his eight-game ban for racist abuse. Then again, as much of a national treasure as he remains, Gazza once confessed to domestically abusing his wife for two years. Has that really tainted his footballing legacy?
No one forgets the perceived flaws in the geniuses game’s or their mindsets. Although while the cult of celebrity and the sensationalist media may thrive upon the faults and weaknesses that adorn some of our heroes, most importantly, the annals of footballing history doesn’t care quite as much.
Lionel Messi’s humble attitude makes him a fantastic role model, but it doesn’t give him any preferential status amongst the greats. That’s reserved solely for what you do with your feet, not your head. He could fall into personal turmoil, get sent off for violent conduct in a Champions League final or get caught doing a ton in a sports car under the influence. It wouldn’t shatter his legacy.
It would shred his role model image, probably harm the odd marketing deal and maybe make him a slightly less wealthy man. But it’s not going to take away anything he has achieved or may continue to achieve, on the football field.
In principle, of course the concept of a ‘flawed genius’ holds gravitas. No matter what their talents on the pitch, be it a suspect temperament or a dabbling in the uncouth off the pitch, a flaw remains a flaw, however you wish to paint it.
But football is a sport that doesn’t always adhere to normal principles. These so called flaws or misgivings, is what helped mould the geniuses into what they are today. In many ways, having flaws is all part and parcel of being a footballing genius.
Lionel Messi appears to have a hell of a lot less than most. But if he is eventually judged the best of all time, it’s got nothing to do with any mindset or attitude. Merely what he achieved with a football at his feet.
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