The average South Florida sports fan could see Lionel Messi walking down Ocean Drive in beachwear and flip-flops this weekend, and not give him a second glance.
He hardly looks like one of the most gifted and highest-paid athletes on the planet. He doesn’t have LeBron James’ superhero build or David Beckham’s GQ style. Messi is 5-7 (in cleats), sports boyish floppy hair, and is remarkably unassuming for a man with a $43.5 million annual income, an estimated $110 million net worth, and an endorsement portfolio that includes adidas, Pepsi, Herbalife, EA Sports and Dolce & Gabbana.
But put that diminutive guy they call La Pulga (“the flea”) on a soccer field, drop a ball in front of him, and he becomes larger than life.
South Floridians have a rare chance to see Messi up close at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday night, on the eve of his 25th birthday, when he and 31 other international soccer stars play an exhibition match as part of the World Masters Tour. The Argentine forward, who plays for Spanish giant FC Barcelona, dribbles as if the ball was a yo-yo attached to his feet. He has an uncanny ability to find the back of the net no matter who is standing in his way or what angle he shoots from.
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“The people of Miami should crawl on broken glass just to inhale the exhaust fumes from the bus Messi is traveling on,” said TV analyst Ray Hudson, the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Miami Fusion coach. “He is that good. He is one of the gods of the game, right up there with Pelé and Diego Maradona. There is something about this player that transcends the game in that magical way.
“He’s the equivalent of the Miami Heat’s great three all rolled into one. He has the borderline genius of LeBron [James], the magical exuberance of Dwyane Wade, and the coolness and effectiveness of [Chris] Bosh. This guy is spellbinding and so astonishingly special. He is Shakespeare’s greatest sonnet in motion.”
This year, Messi scored 73 goals for Barcelona, breaking Gerd Muller’s 39-year-old record for most goals scored in a European season. Muller scored 67 goals for Bayern Munich in 1972-73. Messi, a three-time FIFA Player of the Year, had an unprecedented eight hat tricks, and also became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League match.
He is considered the best player of his time. Warren Barton, a Fox TV analyst, continues to be dazzled by the beguiling superstar.
“First and foremost, Messi is the best player of his generation, like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan were in their sports,” Barton said. “He makes the art of dribbling and scoring goals look easy. And he does all this under intense pressure. People talk about the pressure on LeBron. Messi’s pressure is global. He is scrutinized and judged by the whole world.”
In fact, Messi received more media coverage than any soccer player in the world for the fourth consecutive year, according to a study conducted by the University of Navarra in Northern Spain. His score of 28.8 points means he appeared in the news nearly 29 times more than the average player.
Messi scored more goals on his own than 13 of the other 19 clubs in La Liga scored as a team this season. With 50 goals in 36 La Liga matches, Messi also outscored 12 English Premier League teams, 13 German Bundesliga teams, and 10 Italian Serie A clubs.
But it isn’t how many goals Messi scores that people gush about. It’s how he scores them.
“Don’t look for Leo in X’s and O’s,” Hudson said. “That’s not where he lives. His genius is in how he plays the game. He is the greatest dribbler we’ve ever seen. He does things at a speed Pelé and Diego couldn’t dream about. He is a Ferrari to their Fiat.”
• Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said of Messi:
“Put in the superlatives yourselves, I’m running out. It’s already been a while now that he has been outstanding. He’s more than decisive in every way. That he’s capable of doing everything that he does at his age is something impressive, that doesn’t make any sense. Jordan did it with the Bulls, [Kobe] Bryant does it with the Lakers and Leo does it here.”
• Argentine legend Maradona:
“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius and he can become an even better player. His potential is limitless and I think he’s got everything it takes to become Argentina’s greatest player.”
• Argentine teammate Carlos Tevez:
“His speed is astonishing. I’m constantly around great players like Cristiano [Ronaldo] and [Wayne] Rooney, but this guy is just a step up above every other great footballer out there at the moment. Not only is he quick, determined, and extremely intelligent on the ball, but his movement off the ball is just as fantastic — unbelievable to sum it up in a word.”
• English star Rooney: “On my PlayStation, I can make Messi do what I want, but he’s even better in real life. The speed he moves his legs, in fact his whole body, is amazing.”
Messi spent his younger years in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina. His father was a factory steel worker, his mother a house cleaner. When he was 12, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. The treatment was very expensive. FC Barcelona scouts had heard about Messi from Spanish relatives, offered to move the family to Spain and pay for his medical bills. The Messis moved to Barcelona when Leo was 13, and at 17, he made his debut for Barca’s senior team.
The one thing missing from his résumé is a World Cup trophy. Messi has played on two Argentine World Cup teams, and neither advanced past the quarterfinal, a fact that drives Argentine fans crazy. Why, they ask, does he seem to become mortal when he puts on his national jersey?
“Argentina’s not as good as Barcelona,” Barton surmised. “The only think holding Messi back from matching Pelé and Maradona is a World Cup championship. Just like LeBron, who had done everything but win that NBA ring. Once Messi does that, he may be called best ever.”
In the meantime, Messi mesmerizes.
Hudson, on the air for GOL-TV, after Messi scored four goals in a game this season: “They tell me that all men are equal in God’s eyes. This player makes you seriously think about those words. A gazelle running amongst cheetahs. Astonishing!
“Nothing less than the equivalent of a footballing bird of paradise is this man that defies the description, man! Genius of geniuses! He’s like Dr. Spock! He’s out of his Vulcan mind! Absolutely out of this world! Lionel! Look at the tuck-away, look at the pace, he fills this field up in warp speed. MAGISTERIAL LEOOO! Running like he’s got a food mixer down his shorts.”