Lionel Messi Never Dives

This is a guest post by Nate Spears, who has taken over the site this week while Shawn is on vacation at an undisclosed location.

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I’m going to take this unique opportunity to introduce you guys to something that’s going on across the pond. If you have zero interest in sports, then just move on to the next item in your RSS feed now! If you are interested, this is going to be a long read. Fair warning.

The world of European football (soccer) is a fascinating place, endlessly rich for the sports fan, whether she be casual or fanatic. I could spend several posts detailing the scene from different angles. I could talk about the different flavors of the major leagues – the English, Spanish, German, and Italian leagues (in no particular order) being the richest and generally producing the best soccer, but with different playstyles prevailing in each league. There’s the amazing Champions League, which is a super-league where the best clubs from the whole continent compete in a tournament similar to the format of the World Cup (every year!). There’s the drama of great coaches coming and going, rising and falling, with the best ones changing the style of the game for years. There’s the character of the clubs themselves and their traditions, chants, stadiums, and histories. Along with all that are the intricate, evolving strategies that work their way around Europe like the DNA of successful offspring. Who can find the next step in tactics and formations that will produce the most from a team of talented stars? These are the questions that try men’s souls.

But a lot of that would be a bit, er, inside football to the uninitiated. So I’ve decided to focus on something that’s happening on a more individual level. Right now two men playing in the Spanish League (La Liga) are playing to a sustained level of individual brilliance and one-up-manship that is unparalleled in the history of football, perhaps in the history of sport.

These men are an Argentinian named Lionel Messi and a Portuguese named Cristiano Ronaldo (not to be confused with the Brazilians Ronaldo or Ronaldinho). Leo Messi plays for Barcelona and Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid. These clubs are the richest Spanish clubs and vie for the title each year, and each time they meet the contest is (perhaps unfairly to the rest of their teams) billed as a clash of the two greatest players in the game – Messi vs Ronaldo.

Their individual stories are an interesting study in contrast. Ronaldo has a fairly typical superstar striker story. He started at small clubs in his home country Portugal, and worked his way up to the highest level there. Then he caught the attention of a big club, Manchester United, in one of the four big soccer countries, England, while still young, and developed into a true superstar at Man United. Ronaldo is tall and handsome, some might say pretty, and he fostered a reputation as a bit of a whiny diver early on in his career. He has mostly overcome that reputation now, and his work ethic is tremendous. He’s still a bit infamous among fans of the English national team for winking at his team bench after getting a beloved, hotheaded English player sent off in a World Cup. After making his value at Man United obvious, he joined the only club in the world richer than Man United, Real Madrid, and moved to Spain. Ronaldo has the healthy ego typical of a tall, handsome, talented superstar.

“Some fans keep booing and whistling at me because I’m handsome, rich and a great player. They envy me.”

But he’s not an unsympathetic character either:

“There is no harm in dreaming of becoming the world’s best player. It’s all about trying to be the best. I will keep working hard to achieve it, but it is within my capabilities.”

Lionel Messi, in comparison, is a bit of an oddity in the superstar market. He came up through Barcelona’s youth system and has stayed with the club through his whole career to date. He has stated repeatedly his desire to retire at Barcelona (he probably has at least another 7 years to play). This doesn’t mean he’s any more loyal than Ronaldo – it’s just good luck for him and Barcelona that he started out at one of the biggest teams on the planet (Barcelona is the 3rd richest club in the world, behind both Man United and Real Madrid). Many teams have youth systems and try to promote “from within”, but statistically it’s just unlikely that you will be able to identify all the talent you need from a young age. For every Ronaldo that Man United brings over at 17 or 18 who makes it big, there are ten strikers they bring in who look promising at that age but never quite develop into a striker of “big club caliber” and eventually move on to play their football at smaller clubs. And I don’t even know how many very young kids go through a club’s youth system without ever getting a chance at “first team football,” that is, practicing with the real players and perhaps getting a chance to play towards the end of a real game.

Before Messi played in Spain for Barca, he was a young boy in Argentina whose potential was obvious to anyone who saw him play. He had the ball glued to his left foot from an early age, reminiscent of the greatest Argentinian and perhaps greatest footballer of all time, Diego Maradona. The problem was that Lionel Messi had a growth hormone deficiency, and the payments for the treatments were beyond his parents’ means. When Barcelona’s scout saw the boy in action, he was so convinced of Messi’s talent that Barcelona offered to bring the whole family to Spain and help find his father work, and to take care of Messi’s medical treatment. There was a now-mythical contract on a paper napkin to seal the deal.

Messi was so small when he came over to Spain that his coaches asked the other players not to hurt him. Says his teammate Pique:

“He was really good, but he was really small and thin. His legs were like fingers. One coach said, ‘Don’t try to tackle him strong, because maybe you will break him.’ And we said, ‘O.K., but don’t worry because we cannot catch him.’ ”

In 2006, the dominant superstar at Barcelona was an electric Brazilian named Ronaldinho, whose infectious smile and otherworldly skills charmed the world. Upon receiving the Ballon d’Or (the Golden Ball, an award voted on by players, coaches, and press to give to the best player in the world), Ronaldinho said of the young Messi:

“This award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona.”

Despite the growth treatments that he eventually got, Messi is still a short man (5’7″), and although his legs are no longer skinny, he still comes across as a bit slight. He looks like an average Joe, and his personality is the antithesis of the headline-generating superego. He constantly deflects praise to his teammates and speaks of the team’s achievements, downplaying his own importance. In short, if he wasn’t the greatest player of his generation, he might be a bit forgettable.

So why bring up these two players together? Well, it seems to be one of the boons to fans of football that these two players, both of whom would normally dominate a decade of football with ease, are playing at the same time. They also seem to be, despite the mild protestations of both players to the contrary, pushing each other to greater heights. Ronaldo secured a move to Barcelona’s great rival, Real Madrid, at the height of both of their powers. If that isn’t a declaration of war, I don’t know what is.

So what have these two been doing that makes them so special? They are scoring at an unprecedented, inhuman rate, and they are keeping it up over a period of years.

In 2007-2008, Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 49 appearances in all competitions for Man United, meaning the main English league, the Champions League, and other English tournaments that Man United participated in. This is an astonishing achievement in and of itself, and would be a great achievement even if he had never scored again. The position of striker/forward in football usually plays as close to the opponent’s goal as possible and receives the ball far up the pitch (field) in good position to attempt scoring goals. A striker who scores a goal every two games is considered proficient and deadly, and will command a high salary at a top club. Ronaldo scored his 42 goals playing from a winger position – meaning he played on the side of the pitch and would often have to run past two or three people to score his goals. On top of that, he was scoring free kicks on a regular basis – kicking the ball from a dead stop after a foul of some kind. He was kicking the ball so hard that it swerved back and forth like a knuckleball pitch in baseball, making many a goalkeeper flap at the ball like a large ungainly bird. Sometimes the ball would change direction so rapidly that it looked like it had bounced off an invisible wall in midair. At the time I thought this scoring achievement was so incredible that I remarked to a friend, “He’ll never score that many goals again in his life.” And indeed, the next season he scored a merely excellent 24 goals for Man United. But he would make me eat my words later.

By contrast, in 2007-2008 Messi was not yet the most important player at Barcelona. A glittering array of scoring talent like Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, and Ronaldinho still played there. While establishing himself as an important player in that squad, he scored 16 goals in 40 appearances. and started to let the world know the amazing things he was capable of.

But Ronaldo was just getting started as well. The year following his “slump,” he was traded to Real Madrid; although Man United didn’t want to see him go, they didn’t want to hold him back if he was ready to leave. After that, both their careers started to accelerate. Football isn’t just a numbers game, but take a look at these numbers anyway.

Start-End Year Messi Appearances/Goals Ronaldo Appearances/Goals
2007-2008 40/16 49/42
2008-2009 51/38 53/26
2009-2010 53/47 35/33
2010-2011 55/53 54/53
2011-2012 60/73 55/60
2012-2013 (not over yet) 50/60 55/55

You can see that in 2010-2011 both players approached the absurd “1 goal per game” mark and in 2011-2012 they achieved it. That year, in the 38 Spanish league games, Messi scored 50 of his 60 goals. This was 10 more than the previous record, set the year before by Ronaldo, and 12 more than the record previous to that, set in 1989 by the legend Hugo Sanchez. Consider the ramifications of surpassing the previous high scoring mark by 20%, and what that would look like in other sports. Also consider the number of games played and the consistency required to keep up that output over 50 games, sometimes 2 a week, almost always 90 min per game. By way of comparison, Dan Marino’s astonishing record of 48 touchdowns in a season surpassed the previous holder at 36, a mark which had stood for 20 years, and Marino’s record lasted another 20 years (before being eclipsed by 1 and 2 touchdowns). I think this is the type of once-in-a-lifetime athletic performances by geniuses that we are seeing with Messi and Ronaldo.

Consider that in La Liga, a league that has hosted many of the finest strikers in history, Messi and Ronaldo now collectively occupy 6 of the top 9 spots on the “Most goals in one season” table. Consider that Messi reached 200 goals in La Liga when he was 4 years younger than the previous youngest. Consider that Ronaldo has scored 199 goals in 201 games for Real Madrid. Finally, consider that they have done it all in an age when improved sport science (diets, training, etc) and the immense amounts of money involved have produced faster players, more coordinated teams, and better preparation (analyzing video of your opponent, for example), all without increasing the size of the pitch. Theoretically, there should be less space to operate in and less opportunities to score as athletes and tactics improve. Thankfully, the players are rising to the occasion and thriving in circumstances that would have seemed stifling to players of an earlier time. Even at the highest level, if you’re not careful, Messi will score five on you.

I’ve painted this article a bit more favorably to Messi than Ronaldo, because I like him more, but don’t be misled – both players have rabid legions of fans, often divided by no more than club loyalty. In another world, Messi plays for Real Madrid and Ronaldo plays for Barcelona, and people change their opinions as easily as their shirts.

There’s so much more I could tell you. The exciting head-to-head encounters, the back and forth fortunes of their clubs, the weird tension that is there because Messi keeps winning the Ballon d’Or (4 times running!) despite Ronaldo’s brilliance. The drama of this season’s Champions League, when the clubs were set up oh so perfectly to play each other in the Champions League final, only to bow out in the semifinals to German teams that have been modeled to a large extent on the play styles that Madrid and Barcelona have embodied recently. The epic tale of Madrid’s coach, Jose Mourinho, once spurned by Barcelona as a coach, who made his reputation elsewhere, finally returned to Spain to lead Madrid to prominence over Barcelona, but is now departing with a black cloud over his head after a disappointing third season in which Barca reclaimed the crown. The strange fate of the player Asier Del Horno, whose desperate foul on Messi was so blatant that it basically ended Horno’s career at Chelsea. So many stories, so little time.

Instead I will leave you with two videos. Both of them show off the respective player’s strengths, although of course Messi’s is my favorite. Messi is a player to whom taking a dive is an unknown desire, which leads to one of my favorite videos of his exploits: Lionel Messi Never Dives. When your livelihood depends on your legs, especially for a goalscorer who requires the most finesse from his feet, many players take a seat as soon as things get dicey, because it’s just not worth it to them to risk their careers for the chance to score one more goal. That thought never crosses Messi’s mind and that’s one reason so many people adore him.

Ronaldo is a striker of incredible power and precision, and many of my favorite plays of his involve his breathtaking free kicks. Here’s one in particular that I can watch over and over. See how fast the ball gets up over the wall and then dips back down; that’s not just gravity, it’s magic. Note the force with which it hits the back of the net: it looks like it might rip through the netting.

If you’d like to see more of either player, youtube is chock full of highlights of both. Keep an eye out at next year’s World Cup! I hope you’ve enjoyed this not-so-brief foray into a world you might not be that familiar with.

Shoutout to reader Matthew S. for encouraging me to write a footy post. I hope this satisfies you! Matthew wants me to let you know that the Welsh sensation Gareth Bale, plying his trade in England, deserves to be mentioned in an article about the greats of the game this season. Bale had 26 goals in 44 games for Tottenham, also from a winger position, and has the talent to become worthy of mention in the same breath as Ronaldo and Messi. Here’s hoping he keeps getting better!

Lionel Messi Never Dives