Lionel Messi : End of a Golden era

Lionel Andrés “Leo” Messi (born 24 June 1987) is an Argentine professional footballer who plays as a forward for Spanish club Barcelona. Often considered the best player in the world and rated by many in the sport as the greatest of all time, Messi is the only football player in history to win five FIFA Ballons d’Or, four of which he won consecutively, and the first player to win three European Golden Shoes.[note 2] With Barcelona he has won eight La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League titles, as well as four Copas del Rey. A prolific goalscorer, Messi holds the records for most goals scored in La Liga, a La Liga season (50), a calendar year (91), a single season (73), a Champions League match (5), and most Champions League seasons (5). Being also a creative playmaker, Messi holds the record for most assists made in La Liga and Copa América.
Born and raised in central Argentina, Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child. At age 13, he relocated to Spain to join Barcelona, who agreed to pay for his medical treatment. After a fast progression through Barcelona’s youth academy, Messi made his competitive debut aged 17 in October 2004. Despite being injury-prone during his early career, he established himself as an integral player for the club within the next three years, finishing 2007 as a finalist for both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award, a feat he repeated the following year. His first uninterrupted campaign came in the 2008–09 season, during which he helped Barcelona achieve the first treble in Spanish football. At 22 years old, Messi won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year award by record voting margins.
Three successful seasons followed, with Messi winning three consecutive FIFA Ballons d’Or, including an unprecedented fourth. His personal best campaign to date was the 2011–12 season, in which he set the La Liga and European records for most goals scored in a single season, while establishing himself as Barcelona’s all-time top scorer in official competitions in March 2012. He again struggled with injury during the following two seasons, twice finishing second for the Ballon d’Or behind Cristiano Ronaldo, his perceived career rival. Messi regained his best form during the 2014–15 campaign, breaking the all-time goalscoring records in both La Liga and the Champions League in November 2014, and led Barcelona to a historic second treble.
 A former Argentine international, Messi is his country’s all-time leading goalscorer. At youth level, he won the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, finishing the tournament with both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe, and an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. His style of play as a diminutive, left-footed dribbler drew comparisons with compatriot Diego Maradona, who declared the teenager his successor. After making his senior debut in August 2005, Messi became the youngest Argentine to play and score in a FIFA World Cup during the 2006 edition, and reached the final of the 2007 Copa América, where he was named young player of the tournament. As the squad’s captain from August 2011, he led Argentina to three consecutive finals of the 2014 World Cup, for which he won the Golden Ball, and the 2015 and 2016 Copas América. After his fourth final defeat, Messi retired from international football aged 29, having represented his country in seven major tournaments.

 Early life

Lionel Andrés Messi was born on 24 June 1987 in Rosario, Santa Fe, the third of four children of Jorge Messi, a steel factory manager, and his wife Celia Cuccittini, who worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop. On his father’s side, he is of Italian and Spanish heritage, the great-grandson of immigrants from Marche and Catalonia, and on his mother’s side, he is of primarily Italian descent. Growing up in a tight-knit, football-loving family, “Leo” developed a passion for the sport from an early age, playing constantly with his older brothers, Rodrigo and Matías, and his cousins, Maximiliano and Emanuel Biancucchi, both of whom became professional footballers. At the age of four years, he joined local club Grandoli, where he was coached by his father, though his earliest influence as a player came from his maternal grandmother, Celia, who accompanied him to training and matches.  He was greatly affected by her death, shortly before his eleventh birthday; since then, as a devout Catholic, he has celebrated his goals by looking up and pointing to the sky in tribute of his grandmother.

 A record-breaking year

As Messi maintained his goalscoring form into the second half of the season, the year 2012 saw him break several longstanding records. On 7 March, two weeks after scoring four goals in a league fixture against Valencia, he scored five times in a Champions League last 16 round match against Bayer Leverkusen, an unprecedented achievement in the history of the competition. In addition to being the joint top assist provider with five assists, this feat made him top scorer with 14 goals, tying José Altafini’s record from the 1962–63 season, as well as becoming only the second player after Gerd Müller to be top scorer in four campaigns. Two weeks later, on 20 March, Messi became the top goalscorer in Barcelona’s history at 24 years old, overtaking the 57-year record of César Rodríguez’s 232 goals with a hat-trick against Granada.
Despite Messi’s individual form, Barcelona’s four-year cycle of success under Guardiola—one of the greatest eras in the club’s history—drew to an end. Although they won the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao on 25 May, their fourteenth title of that period, they had lost the league to Real Madrid and were eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals by the eventual champions, Chelsea, with Messi sending a crucial second-leg penalty kick against the crossbar.  In their last home league match on 5 May, against Espanyol, Messi scored all four goals before approaching the bench to embrace Guardiola, who had announced his resignation as manager. He finished the season as league top scorer in Spain and Europe for a second time, with 50 goals, an all-time La Liga record, while his 73 goals in all competitions surpassed Gerd Müller’s 67 goals in the 1972–73 Bundesliga season, making him the single-season top scorer in the history of European club football.
Under manager Tito Vilanova, who had first coached him aged 14 at La Masia, Messi helped the club achieve their best-ever start to a La Liga season during the second half of the year, amassing 55 points by the competition’s midway point, a record in Spanish football. A double scored on 9 December against Real Betis saw him break two longstanding records: he surpassed César Rodríguez’s record of 190 league goals, becoming Barcelona’s all-time top scorer in La Liga, and Gerd Müller’s record of most goals scored in a calendar year, overtaking his 85 goals scored in 1972 for Bayern Munich and Germany. He sent Müller a number 10 Barcelona shirt, signed “with respect and admiration”, after breaking his 40-year record.  At the close of the year, Messi had scored an unprecedented 91 goals in all competitions for Barcelona and Argentina. Although FIFA did not acknowledge the achievement, citing verifiability issues, he received the Guinness World Records title for most goals scored in a calendar year. As the odds-on favourite, Messi again won the FIFA Ballon d’Or, becoming the only player in history to win the Ballon d’Or four times.

 Style of play

Due to his short stature, Messi has a lower centre of gravity than taller players, which gives him greater agility, allowing him to change direction more quickly and evade opposing tackles.  For that, the Spanish media calls him La Pulga Atómica (“The Atomic Flea”). Despite being physically unimposing, he possesses significant upper-body strength, which, combined with his low centre of gravity and resulting balance, aids him in withstanding physical challenges from opponents; he has consequently been noted for his lack of diving in a sport rife with playacting. His short, strong legs allow him to excel in short bursts of acceleration while his quick feet enable him to retain control of the ball when dribbling at speed. His former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, once stated: “Messi is the only player that runs faster with the ball than he does without it.” Although he has improved his ability with his weaker foot since his mid-20s, Messi is predominantly a left-footed player; with the outside of his left foot, he usually begins dribbling runs, while he uses the inside of his foot to finish and provide passes and assists.

Reception

A prodigious talent as a teenager, Messi established himself among the world’s best players before age 20. Diego Maradona considered the 18-year-old Messi the best player in the world alongside Ronaldinho, while the Brazilian himself, shortly after winning the Ballon d’Or, commented: “I’m not even the best in Barça,” in reference to his protégé. Four years later, after Messi had won his first Ballon d’Or by a record margin, the public debate regarding his qualities as a player moved beyond his status in contemporary football to the possibility that he was the greatest player in history.  An early proponent was his then-manager, Pep Guardiola, who had as early as August 2009 declared Messi to be the best player he had ever seen.  In the following years, this opinion gained greater acceptance among pundits, managers, former and current players,  and by the end of Barça’s second treble-winning season, Messi’s superiority, ahead of Maradona and Pelé, had become the predominant view among insiders in continental Europe. A frequent dismissal, however, has centred on the fact that Messi has not won the FIFA World Cup with Argentina, leading some in the sport to instead cite him as the best club player in history.
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