All hail Lionel Messi, the most gluttonous goal merchant a calendar year ever did see. Goals 85 and 86 arrived for Barcelona against Real Betis Sunday, breaking Gerd Muller's 40-year record and cementing Messi's status as the defining player of his generation.
Cristiano Ronaldo fundamentalists will claim otherwise, but Messi is without peer today. Theirs is an argument akin to that which had The Rolling Stones as a match for The Beatles. It serves the editorial agenda exquisitely, but it's not rooted in truth.
Messi stands alone. Comparisons with Ronaldo are obviously due to their ages and positions on opposite sides of the most vital rivalry in football, but history will write Messi's name far bigger than that of everybody's favorite goose-stepping Galatico in Madrid.
Ronaldo is a dazzling, dynamic attacking force. His pace is ferocious, his raw athleticism the stuff of cartoonish creation, and his finishing explosive. Ronaldo is an alpha footballer, and he is capable of dominating just about any match he struts into.
Without question, Cristiano Ronaldo is staring down greatness, as he does his free kicks. But he won't stare down Messi as this generation's genius. One man is a force of nature, the other has such prodigious natural ability, we can only assume he was born a footballing prophet.
That's the difference—that's the reason Messi commands our attention more strongly and will live longer in the game's memory than Ronaldo. And there's nothing the Portuguese star can do about it.
Football values romanticism above mechanical efficiency when it chooses its heroes. Zinedine Zidane and Johan Cruyff were artists, Diego Maradona a ballet dancer dressed up like a bulldog, George Best a rock star who commanded the stage, Pele the boy from the backstreets who conquered the world as a teenager.
Messi comes in their wake, his boyish frame only magnifying his magic. Only Maradona's left foot lays challenge to Messi's, and in time that argument may yet be won by the 25-year-old, who may still have his best to come.
To watch Messi's 86 goals in 2012 is to experience a footballer so in tune with his talent we're in danger of taking him for granted. A dip here, a feint there, another left-footed shot into the corner. And so it goes on, a remarkable retrospective that would be impressive enough if we were watching a player's entire career play out.
In one year, Messi has scored a number of goals most players won't achieve in their professional lifetimes. Many of them were things of beauty—even the simple ones—and he still has three matches left to add to his haul.
"His record this year is absolutely brutal," said Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova, as per BBC. "Let's enjoy the moment and not focus on how many goals he might score in the future."
Nice try, Tito. Of course we're focused on the future. We've been focused on the future for weeks, waiting for Messi to break this record, and we'll be focused on whether he'll win the Ballon d'Or all the way to the ceremony in January.
From there, we'll turn to whether he can win a fourth Champions League title with Barcelona. Then we'll start talking about World Cup 2014 and whether Messi can finally leave a lasting impression on the biggest football stage of all.
When it comes to Messi, the future will always loom large because he's made a habit of influencing it so strongly. The expectancy that stalks his every appearance is the natural byproduct of his consistent brilliance. Nothing short of excellence will satisfy us anymore.
Messi's pedestal could not be higher. Not only are we witnessing one of the great players, we are witnessing an athlete touched by genius who is yet to exhibit its trademark flaws.
At 25, Messi has the world quite literally at his feet. With that comes pressure and the knowledge that the relative failure to meet our expectations is inevitable. At some point, he'll suffer a dip in form. At some point, he'll get injured. At some point, we'll doubt him.
That's the heavy burden of genius. And it's a burden Messi will always feel heavier than Ronaldo.
Maybe being the second-best player of your generation isn't so bad after all.
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