Messi’s the best, by any measurement

Numbers alone can’t reveal the magic of Lionel Messi -- although the numbers are, inarguably, quite magical.

Entering Barcelona’s match with Atletico Madrid on Sunday, Messi has 88 goals in 68 games this calendar year, breaking a record that had stood for four decades. That’s an average of one goal every four days -- including the weeks when Messi didn’t play a game. Oh, and he also has 29 assists.

“We will not see a player like this ever again,” Barcelona Manager Tito Vilanova said last weekend, after Messi scored twice in a 2-1 win over Real Betis.


“Don’t try to describe him,” former Barcelona Manager Pep Guardiola once said. “Watch him.”

That may work in Europe, where Messi’s masterful dribbling, incomparable runs and deadly marksmanship are savored like fine wine. There’s no doubting that in the hands (or feet) of a maestro like Messi, soccer becomes more individual art than team sport.

But in the U.S., athletic greatness is measured by metrics and confirmed by comparison. A baseball slugger’s feats are necessarily matched against Babe Ruth’s, a hockey sniper’s against Wayne Gretzky’s.

Not surprisingly, Messi’s accomplishments hold up well there as well. He is, simply, the best soccer player of all time.

Consider that in the current season in Spain’s La Liga, Messi has 23 goals in 15 games; only two other players have more than nine. Or that Messi’s average of 1.29 goals a game this year is better than Gretzky’s best NHL season.

Consider, too, that next month the 25-year-old Messi will assuredly accept FIFA’s world player-of-the-year award for a record fourth time. He finished second in the voting two other times, the first when he was 21.

Barry Bonds is the only baseball player to win four consecutive MVP awards and his competition was limited to 15 other teams. Messi’s competition is the rest of the planet.

And, fittingly, Messi’s dominance this year has been global, featuring games in 13 countries with goals in eight of them. During one 16-day stretch beginning in May, Messi scored in a Copa del Rey match in Madrid, in a World Cup qualifier in Argentina and then had a hat trick in an exhibition against Brazil in New Jersey.

Last month he played games in Mallorca, Riyadh, Barcelona and Moscow over 10 days, scoring two goals in each match. In March, he scored five times in a Champions League win; in two other games he had four goals. He’s had seven hat tricks and scored twice 19 other times.

But then there are the things he does that must be seen because they can’t be measured. Such as the broken-field runs through hapless defenders that make him look like Devin Hester returning a punt. Or the amazing ball control, akin to Rajon Rondo leading a fastbreak -- only Messi does it with his feet.

Then there’s the grit that is often overlooked, especially given that Messi is only 5 feet 7 and 147 pounds. But remember, he scored his record-setting goal against Real Betis only five days after he was carried from the field on a stretcher after injuring his left knee in a collision with the keeper.

“I thought it might be the last time I kicked a ball in a long time,” Messi said afterward.

What if it had been? Messi could have retired, at 25, as Barcelona’s leading scorer in official competitions. Last season he broke La Liga’s scoring record with 50 goals, a mark he’s on pace to shatter again this season.

Not everyone is on the Messi bandwagon, of course. After Messi’s 86th goal erased Gerd Muller’s name from the books, protests came from the Zambian soccer association and the Brazilian club Flamengo, which both claim Messi’s performance is no better than second-best all-time.

The Zambians say they will present FIFA with evidence proving the late Godfrey Chitalu of the Kabwe Warriors scored 107 goals in 1972 -- the same year Muller set the long-accepted record.

And Flamengo says the legendary Zico scored 89 times for his club and the national team in 1979.

Even if those numbers prove accurate, it would be difficult to argue that Chitalu’s performance in the Zambian Premier League matches that of Messi, who plays most of his games in arguably the best league in the world.

The case is stronger for Zico, the “White Pele,” who played in three World Cups for Brazil and was considered by many to be the world’s best player in the early 1980s. But Messi can make any argument moot with two goals in Barcelona’s final two matches this year.

Yet regardless of how the numbers play out, former Barcelona striker Jose Antonio Zaldua, a contemporary of both Chitalu and Zico, has already made up his mind.

“Messi is the best player I’ve seen,” he told a Spanish sports daily earlier this year. “I’ve seen Pele, [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Diego] Maradona and [Johan] Cruyff but nobody like Messi.

“This ease with which he scores there is just no end to him. He will destroy and kill all the records that we have or might have. He is a marvel.”