Stop for a moment and just think about the number 91. In sports, it's a decent speed for a fastball, a nice yardage total for a running back and an average score for a basketball team.
In soccer, however, it's a number that's rarely ever uttered. Well, at least it wasn't until Lionel Messi netted an astonishing 91 goals in 2012, setting a new record (depending on whom you ask) for goals scored in a calendar year for club and country.
So just how impressive was this mark? How does it compare to other records being broken in sports?
Should we dock him points for playing on the most talented team in the world?
Or do we admire him even more for standing out on that team and dominating against far greater athletes than Gerd Muller faced in 1972 when he scored 85 goals, or Godfrey Chitalu faced in that same year when he supposedly scored 107?
When you think about what Messi has done from a goal-scoring perspective, there aren't more impressive marks that have been broken recently. This record stood for 40 years, and Messi achieved it playing against top competition.
Only Adrian Peterson—if he surpasses Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984—could possibly lay claim to accomplishing an equally astounding achievement. The NFL has turned into a pass-heavy league, so seeing rushing records drop from a player who had ACL surgery a year ago is remarkable.
Sure, Miguel Cabrera hit for the Triple Crown this year, the first since 1967. But it wasn't a record of any sort, and there were many folks who thought another player, Mike Trout, actually had the better season. Who would argue that anyone was better than Messi this year?
To put his 91 goals into further perspective, Liverpool has scored 93 goals this year. Messi's total is insane. It's like Babe Ruth hitting 54 home runs in 1920, more than any other team in baseball managed that year except for one. That level of dominance is rare.
But the detractors will point to the all-star team of Barcelona. They'll note that world-class talents like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Pedro are setting the table for him. They'll say that Messi would score far less were he on a different team.
Maybe, maybe not. I've always been of the belief that Barcelona merely makes Messi's genius more apparent, and that Messi raises the level of play of those around him as much as they return the favor.
Barcelona's roster allows us to see Messi play at the full level of his ability, yes, but it doesn't mean any other player in the world would come close to this achievement while playing for Barca.
And the number doesn't really do Messi's talent justice, if you can believe that. In an excellent article noting the important distinction between what the stats tell you and what you actually will see when watching a soccer match, Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star wrote the following:
Who scored the most goals in a career? Though Pele is most often mentioned, no one really knows. It doesn't matter.
Twenty-one players scored more goals in the World Cup than Diego Maradona. Who would you rather have had?
Soccer is mystic. There has been no better summation of Messi's talent than from the great Diego, when he said, "Messi is my Maradona." It's pompous, foolish and true, with all the metaphysics that implies.
Reducing a man's accomplishments to a tally removes from the conversational mix dozens of geniuses who did something other than score goals. So no one does that.
In a sense, Messi's 91 goals both overrates and underrates his accomplishments.
Taken alone, it does diminish the role his teammates played. But it also reduces his game to the finishing moment. It doesn't account for his movement, his deft touch, the way the ball just seems stick to his feet in traffic. It even ignores his pinpoint accuracy on the finish, or the creative way he'll chip the ball over the goalie or find the perfect place to put his shot from the most difficult of angles.
Taken alone, the quantity starts to mean more than the quality, but the latter is more impressive. Messi has his fair share of soft tap-ins littered about his 91 goals, but he also has an impressive array of jaw-dropping finishes or goals derived from a piercing run or wonderful ball control.
And remember, he's doing this against a higher level of competition than his peers. The athleticism of players today supersedes that of what we saw in 1972, that's for sure.
Any way you slide it, Messi's 2012 campaign is breathtaking. The number 91 alone is insane, but it really only tells a small part of the story. To understand Messi, you just have to watch.
In the little details, you will see the most dominant athlete we've seen since possibly Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, or even as far back as Pele or Babe Ruth. In other words, enjoy the ride Messi is taking us all on.
It's truly special.
Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets can't process the genius of Messi. He's too good.