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2015 was an ugly year for world soccer, though not entirely gloomy. While the FIFA fracas involving the forked tongues and soiled hands of sleazeballs like Sepp Blatter, Chuck Blazer and Jeffrey Webb (with Loretta Lynch in the Elliot Ness role) was painted in notoriety, it also served as a new starting point.
The de-and-impending-re-construction of FIFA isn’t and won’t be pretty — or perhaps even successful — but at least there’s a glimmer of hope now. Still, even with the Siege in Zurich clogging headlines through May and beyond, football — that game with the ball and the grass and the two goals and the white rectangle — remained king.
In many ways, 2015 was also banner year for world soccer; in the way that with every passing year the sport finds fresh ground to break and numbers to surpass. On the pitch, we watched figures like Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, who uncovered elevated gears of suffocating excellence for his already dominant Bavarian side to enter, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who, to no surprise at all, transported another truckload of goals for both Real Madrid and Portugal (55 in all competitions, to be exact).
South American celestials like Neymar and Luis Suarez became even brighter stars in Catalunya, while an earthly dweller named Jamie Vardy somehow played himself into English football folklore for Leicester City. But no matter the reach of their feat or the size of their trawl, each of these individuals, either directly or tangentially, were once again dwarfed behind the mammoth shadow of one Lionel Andres Messi.
Superlatives can very often be contrived and disingenuous and altogether unnecessary. With Messi, however, the plaudits ring patently true, and we know that because he’s exhausted them all so many times over during his 11-year professional career. He’s gone from Child Most Likely To Sign Professional Soccer Contract On A Napkin, to the most promising cadet in Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy, to the greatest footballer of his era, to the greatest footballer ever.
There’s not a whole lot left to say that hasn’t already been etched in stone in regards to the diminutive Argentine. So when there’s nothing left to say, the best course of action is to simply exist within and appreciate the moment.
2015 wasn’t the best year of Messi’s career, but then again maybe it was. Discussing the faintly-if-ever-disputed GOAT tends to dissolve all perspective amid the blazing nature of their sheer greatness. Oddly enough, there’s no better way to celebrate something than to talk (and write) about it.
So what was Messi’s 2015 like? Here are just a few numbers he registered, records he broke, and achievements he accepted:
By the looks of that list, Messi must be a pretty good footballer. Of course, those are all just characters in ink and trinkets with his name lasered — they’re essentially hollow. With Messi, it’s the visible, sensational moments of magic that truly rouse. He had plenty in 2015.
The world laughed, cried, and ogled when Messi sent Jerome Boateng to tango purgatory against Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions League (a competition Barcelona would later win). The same world wept at his feet as he Nureyev’d his way through half of Basque Country to score the kind of gem only he can score against Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey (a trophy Barcelona would also raise).
In his pantheon of unearthly goals, the Athletic masterpiece might’ve been Messi’s greatest. The fact that it occurred in a cup final certainly adds to its esteem, though just marginally.
See, for Messi, friendlies and finals and Clasicos all look the same. They all present blank checks for him to write. We pay — with our money, time, and tears — to get to see him write them. Meanwhile he never disappoints, seemingly, because he strives to achieve even more than we strive to watch him achieve.
When you think about it, for those of us who follow the game with our hearts as much as our eyes, what could be more invaluable than a competitor who treats every match like the Book of Revelation?
There was some not-so-good for La Pulga in 2015 — as there should be for any compelling narrative subject — but just some. In October, he and his father were ordered by Spanish courts to stand trial over the tax evasion charges that have afflicted Messi and his normally pristine image over the last couple of years. There’s yet to be a conclusion to this debacle, although Messi’s lawyers are seeking dismissal of the case due to supposed errors in the investigation.
But being such an off-field enigma, it’s Messi’s on-field failings that are uniquely over-examined. As a perceived underachiever for his country — often by its very citizens — another major tournament bust (eg. anything but a winner’s medal) was the last thing the 28-year-old’s legacy needed. Nonetheless, it came in July. Making the Copa America final — one year after leading the Albicelestes to a World Cup final — through a murderer’s row of South American raiders wasn’t quite enough to keep the gnats of disapproval at bay.
Argentina’s heartbreaking loss to Chile (in Chile) was an all-too-familiar, somber footnote to an otherwise brilliant international calendar for Messi. The turbulent love affair between Messi and his nativeland will likely continue into 2016, and maybe forever.
Messi claims to not fuss over his countrypeople’s opinion of him, but he indisputably cares about playing football. Which is why the Argentine’s bleakest run of 2015 was likely after he picked up a knee injury against Las Palmas. The knock kept him on the sidelines for nearly two whole months.
In true Messi-anic fashion, however, Messi fixed himself just in time to help his side wallop Real Madrid (a bi-annual tradition) 4-0 in November’s Clasico. His knee appears to be fine, and he hasn’t missed a step since his return. Nor has Barca.
It’s inside of the club’s weighty trophy cabinet where you’ll find the most absolving evidence of Messi’s repute, both this year and any other. In 2015, the Leo-led blaugrana cavalcade added five new trophies into the Camp Nou’s armoire: UEFA Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Supercup and FIFA Club World Cup. These five titles make it 26 in total for Messi’s career, the most in the club’s 117-year history.
Despite having a hand in one of the most successful team hauls in history, it’s impossible not to prioritize Messi’s influence over everybody else’s. When we gush over the exploits of “MSN,” there’s no questioning whose initial comes first, nor whose is capitalized and bolded.
The standout of any group naturally garners the most shine, often without much guff. However, when we’re talking about Messi, the guff doesn’t even exist (just ask Suarez). The feisty Uruguayan may rightly lay claim to world football’s premier centre-forward crown, while the pop-icon Brazilian will probably own the globe for the majority of the next decade. But now is now. 2015 is now. And Messi is now.
So where does Messi go in 2016? The only feasible answer is up. He’s only 28, after all, and he and his club have shown no early signs of abandoning future podium presentations any time soon.
As contradictory of a sentiment as it seems, Messi is in garbage-time from here on out. His statistics will snowball, the records that he keeps setting-and-re-setting before the cement even dries will become monuments, and his star will continue to beam. One day, a bunch of shriveled-up, hairy-eared oldies sitting in a pub will look back on the fact that Messi owned 2015 with one simple reply: Of course, he did.