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Lionel Messi is the greatest player of all time now, isn’t he? He broke the record held by Gerd Müller last night and has now scored 86 goals in 2012 (that’s one every 4 days throughout the year – including the summer) which is, by any stretch, a phenomenal achievement. I missed the goals, as it happens, though caught up with them at half time; and they were both typically classy Messi strikes. The whole thing, however, left me feeling a little empty and has done for a few weeks now.

Three months ago, nobody was aware of this record. Whether that is because nobody had been close to breaking it since Müller set it I couldn’t say. I remember a few weeks back, it was discussed that Pele’s was the mark to beat, and certainly Der Bomber never spoke up about his, but it was settled a while ago that 85 was the figure to aim for. It was obviously a number that would be attainable, but difficult to beat – it would allow the story to run.

That’s the aspect of the record I want to talk about, really. The story, and the context of it all. I watched a lot of Spanish football last season. There was an intriguing plot line in Barcelona’s pursuit of Real Madrid (which died in the Spring) and other equally
interesting interwoven subplots; Levante’s grip on fourth place, Malaga’s grip on existence, Valencia’s railing against the dying of their light – indeed not only that going on at the top end, I covered the other end of the table with Villarreal’s dramatic demise on these pages a few months hence. That doesn’t even touch the Messi v. Ronaldo battle that the media obsesses over and will never be able to settle – they are different players, in different teams. Both are exceptional – I prefer Messi, I like guile over power; I was weaned on Roberto Baggio.

This season’s Liga, though, is all about Barcelona. Under Vilanova, the shackles are off, they’re winning, they’re winning well and the goals are flying in. Real Madrid haven’t really got going yet…well, they sort of have… its not their (domestic) season, I’ll say. Athletico are never going to be a credible threat to either. Real Betis have started very well – they’re playing the Levante role this season – but its all very much a case of ‘nobody can stop Barcelona’. P15 W14 D1 L0 – F50 (that’s 13 more than anyone else – practically 1 per game) A17 Pts 43 (that’s 6 more than anyone else, 18 more than the team in fourth place – after 15 games).

It means that watching Barcelona can be a strangely unfulfilling experience for those who are unemotionally involved – and most who flick on Sky Sports to see them are unemotionally involved. They want to be entertained rather than satisfied¹, and though there’s nothing wrong with that, when you’re thinking, as you’re bound to ‘Oh, look, a team who are far better than Real Betis are playing against them and will win’, what story is there to tell, what can you get excited about around that happening unless Betis complete the unthinkable. At some point, somebody will – more than likely Real Madrid, which is the only ‘other’ story to tell. Until then, though, you can’t have people watching the best team in the world hoping they lose. So we are fed a different story. A quick flick through the archives, and we see Messi can score the most goals in a calendar year. Let’s watch Barcelona and cheer for that happening – by dint of doing that, we cheer for Barcelona.

Now it is done. Conveniently enough, its over before the big Ballon d’Or award wherein the world is made to pick between Messi and Ronaldo again (don’t see Ronaldo scoring 86 goals this year, do you?) so Messi comes into it on the back of a big story where he was, again, the success and he was the winner. That aspect of the record brings me to mind of Ronaldo’s ‘argument’ when he was feeling unhappy earlier in the season. It spread that he thought Real Madrid don’t do enough to support him, and though I think his latter part of the year has dipped a little from its usual plateau (certainly he’s no longer pulling Real through with his bootstraps as he has in the past) there’s been no sign of anything like this record for him to break to keep him in the forefront despite that.

This morning, then, we move on from Messi breaking another record (and congratulations to him) giving people a reason to tune into Barcelona to something else. The next Messi record to be broken. The next storyline in the Barcelona soap opera. The next reason to hope their football conquers all others.

What I’m left to wonder is who first started to build up this record into something we should keep our eye on? Was it Barcelona? Was it the league? Or was it the media?
If it was Barcelona; I would say they’re ‘obviously’ providing a storyline to keep their domination interesting and keep people on their side.
If it was the league; I would reckon that they noticed their product is less enthralling than usual as competition slips and have tried to keep people involved in it where else they might lose interest. If it was the media; I would say that the Spanish league will always be covered, but there’s only so many times you can tell the same story, so this was a ‘new’ one, and one that would rumble on for a few weeks and (ultimately, be it triumph or disaster) lead to comparisons at the end, too.

My final question related to the calendar year. This record is related to a January – December calendar. I would also be interested to see (and I’m sure somebody somewhere has already looked) if Messi has had any more productive 365 day periods, or if anyone has had any more productive 365 day periods (Gerd might have done, Pele might have done) throughout time. I’m sure, if they have, we might well hear more about it over the next few weeks.

At the end of the day, Lionel Messi has done something phenomenal in 2012. He may well be the greatest player of all time. He’s certainly a pleasure to watch. However, in terms of storylines, when he retires, I’m sure he’ll look back on 2012 as a year of missed opportunities rather than taken ones.

As I was working this out, I thought I might add a little quiz at the end, so here’s a quick five-question Spanish League quiz to see if you pay attention when you watch; if you get fewer than three, you need to sharpen up, if you get all five, get in touch.
1. Who wins the Zamora Trophy?
2. What does it spell out on the seats at the Camp Nou?
3. What is unique about Bilbao’s first team?
4. In which city do Real Betis play their home games?
5. Whose reserve team are known as Castilla?

¹By contrast – when I watch Torino, I couldn’t give a hoot if they just hoof the ball out of the ground for 90 minutes; if they scramble a point, I feel fulfilled – to be honest, at the moment, if they scramble an unembarrassing defeat I feel fulfilled. One day, eh? One day.

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