When the World Cup Final kicks off this afternoon, two countries will begin a 90-minute (minimum) clash for soccer’s holy grail.
The world’s eyes will be on one player, Lionel Messi.
When the ball is at the feet of Argentina’s number 10, time seems to stand still. Everyone knows something incredible is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. The magisterial showcase the man puts on every time he steps onto the field is enough to inspire the entire population of Argentina, 41 million strong.
The stats don’t do Messi justice, but they surely back him up as the best player in the world. In his club career, he has scored 243 goals in 277 games with FC Barcelona. Last year, he set the record for goals in a calendar year with 86. In international play, he has scored 42 goals in 92 appearances, with four in six games this World Cup.
If you combine club and international play, he has scored 285 goals in 369 games, a mark only topped by Pele. As J.A. Adande of ESPN tweeted last month, “Messi’s hype-to-reality ratio might be the closest to 1:1 in sports.”
Did we mention Messi stands at 5’7, 148 pounds due to a growth hormone deficiency? We haven’t seen a better pound-for-pound athlete since Allen Iverson. In a sports world that has been tainted with performance-enhancing drug use, he took no shortcuts, relying on his heart and work ethic to get ahead.
To understand the brilliance, you have to watch the man at work; his skill-set is impeccable. The dribbling ability is off the charts, and he rarely ever takes a bad touch or loses the ball to a defender. His playmaking and speed are world-class and his passing ability is vastly underrated. However, all the skill means nothing if you don’t have the finishing ability, and he certainly realizes that. Just like Stephen Curry or Alex Ovechkin, if you give Messi an open look he’s going to cash in nearly every time. Not defending him tightly enough is a recipe for disaster, and that makes him a nightmare to gameplan for. Teams try all sorts of schemes and defensive strategies to stop him, but more often than not he’s just too good.
Messi hasn’t endeared himself to so many people around the globe on his superhero play alone, however; he’s an extremely humble human being as well. He’s quick to shrug off individual achievements, making it clear that the team’s success comes before personal gain. When asked about the voting for the 2012 Ballon d’Or Award, annually given to the best player in the world, Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo said he’d vote for himself if he could. “Being too humble isn’t good,” Ronaldo told the media. Being “too humble” ended up being good for Messi that year, as he was the eventual winner of soccer’s most prestigious individual honor.
Lionel Messi doesn’t get caught up in the fray. He just gets it. Instead of letting the massive success get to his head, he has been quoted as saying, “The day you think there are no improvements to be made is a sad one for any player.”
That’s really something. Even the guy who will most likely go down as one of the best players not named Pele realizes there are constant improvements to be made, ample opportunities to better himself as a player. The commitment to excellence makes him a role model for young people everywhere and a true ambassador for the game.
The reason I coin Messi “The People’s Champion” is simple: he’s the best, most-likable player in the world, and he’s going up against the soccer equivalent of fictional boxer Ivan Drago. The German team Argentina is facing on Sunday is a merciless machine prone to destroying anything in their path. They ripped host nation Brazil’s hearts out with the most dominating display in semifinal history, going off for seven goals to dash the hopes and dreams of every blue, yellow and green-wearing fan in attendance. They literally reduced everyone in that stadium to tears with every shot that found the back of the net.
As with Rocky or any story with an underdog hero, the majority of the world doesn’t want to see the machine win this game. The Germans will be heavy favorites behind the powerful feet of player like Muller and Klose, but the globe will be centered on number 10. Can the best pound-for-pound athlete in the world cement his legacy by hoisting the World Cup at the end of the match? It would be a fitting ending for the People’s Champ.