Lionel Messi did not have a single goal or assist in Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Juventus in the Champions League Final earlier this month. But the 27-year-old soccer star was behind each of Barca’s scores and more, his lurking presence on the field just as real, and potent, as gravity. And this particular sporting force, as those attempting to operate within his orbit can testify, is one that tends to suck in defenders and bend the fabric of space and time, including the ball, toward one ineluctable point in the universe: the goal.
The most recent indication of Messi’s magnetism is a fourth title in Europe’s Champions League, a competition regarded by some as “the highest expression of the sport,” of greater import than even the World Cup. It’s a trophy the Argentine striker can add to his four FIFA World Player of the Year awards and a pile of other hardware, including seven La Liga titles and a 2008 Olympic gold medal. And despite his own lack of mass — Messi, nicknamed “the Flea,” stands just 5-foot-7 (1.70 m) — there is such an inescapable gravity to No. 10’s play that soccer commentators, like the sporting world’s cosmologists, are often left grasping for the words and data to describe the marvelous phenomenon they have encountered.
First there is Messi’s speed and remarkable ability to move with the ball. It often looks like he runs faster with the ball, seemingly attached to his feet, than pursuing defenders run without it. Daniel Edwards, a freelance journalist who covers South American soccer from Buenos Aires, cites Messi’s low center of gravity and “dizzying balance” as an almost unbeatable edge. “With that principal weapon,” Edwards says, “Messi has license to do whatever he wishes on the football pitch.”
His speed and ball control, combined with uncanny field vision and precision shooting, have produced countless one-man scoring runs. Perhaps the most famous came against Getafe in April 2007 when, at just 19 years old, Messi scored after a 12-second run over 60 meters in which he evaded five opposing players — a goal instantly compared to countryman Diego Maradona’s epic run in the 1986 World Cup. But Messi’s seeming omniscience on the field does not begin when he gets the ball. As anyone who has ever tried to prevent a horde of 7-year-olds from swarming the ball knows, spacing is critical in soccer. And Messi’s most impressive skill, says Karl Matchett, a World Football analyst and freelance columnist for Bleacher Report, “is just his appreciation of space: where to find it, when to go into it and how to exploit it.”