Lionel Messi’s greatness hardly was a secret as the decade began. He already had finished three times among the top three in voting for the annual Ballon d’Or trophy, presented to the greatest player in world soccer, and he won the award by a landslide in 2009.
And yet, at that juncture of his career, he was a mere mortal.
He scored 38 goals in all competitions for FC Barcelona in that 2008-09 season, including 23 in 31 La Liga games. That’s a lot, but it’s the kind of number the best humans approach annually. The average Golden Boot winner in the Premier League over the past 10 years has scored 30 goals, from the high (32 by Mohamed Salah in 2018) to the low (20 by Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov in 2011.)
Since Messi launched his conquest of a decade that, even at the end, no one has yet to aptly name — “the Tens” just does not roll off the tongue — that goal total seems almost quaint. It’s like the difference between Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
Messi in the 2010 season: 47 goals.
Messi in 2011: 53 goals.
Messi in 2012: 73 goals.
“Although he may not be human, it’s good that Messi still thinks he is,” midfielder Javier Mascherano said of his longtime teammate with Barcelona and Argentina.
Seriously, he was doing things that seemed unimaginable before he arrived on the scene. When Babe Ruth blasted 54 home runs for the Yankees in 1921, no one ever before had hit more than 29. (That also was the Babe.) Messi’s run through the first several years of this decade resembled that degree of dominance. There’s a word for that, now, in the English language: Ruthian. You won’t find it in all the dictionaries, but it has been in the sports pages almost as often as baseball box scores.
Messi averaged 52.3 goals per season in all competitions for the past decade. And that’s to say nothing of his astonishing playmaking. He scored four more goals per season than his great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, did for Real Madrid and then Juventus. When you throw assists into the comparison, Messi averaged 20 to Ronaldo’s 13. Messi also won the Ballon d’Or five times this decade, one more than Ronaldo.
All those goals and all those assists produced seven La Liga titles for Barcelona, five Copa Del Rey championships and two UEFA Champions League triumphs. Barca also won the FIFA Club World Cup in its two appearances.
It is a measure of Messi’s greatness that there is consternation about the nearly five years that have passed since Barcelona last won the Champions League — even as the club has won four of five league titles by an average of seven points.
It is a measure of Messi’s greatness that he appeared in three major international finals with Argentina during his period — the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa America and the 2016 Copa America Centenario — and still he is criticized for not achieving for his national team.
That’s how high he has set the standard.
When he still was active, longtime England and Chelsea defender John Terry called Messi “quite clearly the best player ever.” He called it “a pleasure” to challenge Messi and said he when his career was over, he could look back “and know I’ve tested myself against the very best.”
By the numbers
166: League goals between 2014 and 2019:
68: League assists between 2014 and 2019
527: Barcelona goals between 2014 and 2019
46.2 percent: Messi direct involvement in Barca league goals
What they’re saying:
“He’s better than you with his right foot, left foot and his head. He’s better at defending and attacking. He’s faster. Better at dribbling, better at passing … We haven’t put him in goal yet, but what out if he tries that, too.” — Xavi, then FC Barcelona midfielder, during 2010-11 season
The next decade belongs to: Kylian Mbappe
Kylian Mbappe already has been a World Cup champion for 17 months, and his 21st birthday arrives this week. He is the most dynamic forward to enter the game in a generation, with speed and control few others have possessed. He has scored 55 times in 67 appearances in all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain since joining the club in 2017, including 13 in 21 Champions League games. However, his impact on the biggest club competitions may be muted as long as he remains with Paris. PSG has not advanced beyond the round of 16 in Champions League during Mbappe’s time in Paris, and that’s with the likes of Neymar and Edinson Cavani as teammates. PSG has been built into Ligue 1’s dominant club, but can Mbappe elevate them beyond that, or must he seek a new home in England, Spain or Italy to have a chance at the game’s other biggest prize?