In Argentina, they are obsessed with the idea of el pibe — the kid. From Diego Maradona to Ricardo Bochini, it is the small, slight No 10 from the streets that they use to sum up their game.
The problem for Lionel Messi is that while he is short, while he wears that famous number and while he plays like he is from the barrios of Rosario, he is not slowing down with age.
El pibe is meant to fade out. By the time Maradona had turned 31, he was dogged by off-field scandal and punished by injury on it. Messi, at 31, defined a Champions League semi-final, further marking himself out as arguably the greatest player of all time.
Lionel Messi scored twice against Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday night
His second strike, a sensational free-kick into the top corner, was his 600th Barcelona goal
Even his first goal for Barcelona’s first-team, technically scored twice, was something special
His 600th goal for Barcelona was something special. At one stage in his career, Messi’s free-kicks were considered a weak point. Now it is the equivalent of a penalty for him.
But to really appreciate Messi, you have to go back to when he was a kid. Ronaldinho already knew the talent Barcelona possessed: ‘Messi was always very shy, but always a fantastic player.
‘We lived on the same street, so I had a great relationship with him and his family. Even then I knew he was a better player than me.’
They had known from the off in his hometown of Rosario. His grandmother begged a coach to let him play a junior game at the age of four. When he was allowed on, he ignored the first pass to him and it seemed like an error.
One of the defining goals of Messi’s early career at Barcelona came against Getafe in 2007
He darted around gathered defenders, beat them all and then struck past the goalkeeper
Then he collected another, danced around defenders and let everyone know he was something special.
Barcelona snapped him up and the chatter around Messi started. By the age of 14, he was being noticed by avid Football Manager players, including Alex McLeish’s son Jon, who tried to get his dad to take him on loan at Rangers.
At youth level he shone — those videos are now famous in hindsight. Then there were cameos for the first-team and the moment, against Albacete in May 2005, when he scored his first. He was introduced from the bench and, teed up by Ronaldinho, he lobbed the goalkeeper. The flag then went up for offside, the blow to Messi clear.
So Messi just did it again. The same set up, the same goal. Finally, he had his first as a senior player in a Barcelona shirt.
Messi scoring his brilliant header in the Champions League final in 2009 against United
|Goal type||Total goals||% of goals|
If you can score the same goal twice in a game, you can probably score 600 in 683 appearances. But when that ball hit the back of the net against Albacete, no one in the modern game posted those figures.
It is only because of Messi and, to a degree Cristiano Ronaldo, that we speak in those terms.
Messi took another 1721 days to hit his hundredth — the best along the way probably a slaloming run and goal against Getafe — although it has been a rapid falling of milestones since then.
He needed 654 days to reach his 200th goal, 473 days to reach the 300th, 791 days for his 400th and 735 days to score his 500th goal.
The Argentinian forward holds his shirt aloft after scoring his 500th at the Santiago Bernabeu
|200||01/11/2011||Viktoria Plzen||Synot Tip Arena|
|500||23/04/2017||Real Madrid||Santiago Bernabeu|
That double against Liverpool that took him to 600 was 739 days after his strike at the Santiago Bernabeu — his favourite away ground, with 15 goals — when he held out his shirt towards the home fans.
Messi has scored 0.9 goals per game for Barcelona. And that has taken him to a level that is 368 more than their previous all time scorer, Cesar Rodriguez.
Think about the pantheon of greats who have graced the Nou Camp and know Messi has more than doubled his closest goalscoring rival.
Messi is also the greatest goalscorer in the history of La Liga, with 417 strikes, and his 50 in the Copa del Rey show just how he has dominated Spanish football since his debut.
It is not just goal after goal against minnows either. Messi lights up the big stage. When there were doubts in England over his ability, he put a sword through Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final with his head — responsible for 3.7 per cent of his goals — his boot flying off in the process.
Messi even scored against United with his boot flying off his foot — he kissed it in celebration
Then in 2011 there was what might be, in retrospect, deemed the Messi final. Again United were the opponents and again, they could not contain him. He struck from outside the box, where a huge 16.4 per cent of his goals come from, completely befuddling Edwin van der Sar.
Real Madrid and Espanyol both also feature in his top five for goals scored against opponents, at 26 and 25 goals respectively, while only Ronaldo has scored more than his 112 in the Champions League.
In fact, it is only Ronaldo and Messi who have scored 600 or more goals among active footballers and none of the top five, barring Gerd Muller, played in what could be deemed a truly competitive league. When it comes to Pele, for example, there remain doubts over what standard of opposition he faced for his supposed 1281 goals.
Messi also shone when Barcelona took on United in the Champions League final in 2011
The conversation around Messi has now become to appreciate him while he still plays. How many more times will we get to see that left foot, responsible for 81.8 per cent of his strikes, wrap around the ball?
A few years ago, as fitness deserted him, it seemed like that was a limited time frame. Yet this season has been among his best.
He destroyed Spurs at Wembley with his double, also playing a sensational pass to set up their first. His chip against Real Betis went viral.
He scored twice against Spurs at Wembley this season and was the best player on the pitch
His chip against Real Betis also went viral earlier this year as he struck an impressive attempt
What can still be said about the free-kick against Liverpool, less than 24 hours on from it hitting the back of the net?
Now the kid has become a senior star. At 31, it no longer seems unlikely that he will hit 700 goals. Who cannot foresee him playing for another five years?
The image has been busted. This pibe will not fade away.