x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lionel Messi's message to Fabrice Muamba an act of class

That the Argentine took time out to support my friend shows the humility of world's greatest player.

Lionel Messi broke Barcelona's scoring record with a hat-trick against Granada on Tuesday night. David Ramos / Getty Images
Lionel Messi broke Barcelona's scoring record with a hat-trick against Granada on Tuesday night. David Ramos / Getty Images

That the Argentine took time out to support my friend Muamba shows the humility of world's greatest player

Lionel Messi's message in support to Fabrice Muamba this week spoke volumes for the man.

On the night the world greatest player became the leading scorer in Barcelona's history it was obvious that goals were not the only thing on his mind.

By wearing a T-shirt with the message "Fabrice! We are Behind You" he showed he has the humility and class to match the talent of a genius. His gesture to Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers midfielder who collapsed on the pitch after suffering a cardiac arrest in a match against Tottenham on Saturday, touched me.

Muamba is a good family friend who calls my wife Auntie Shirley and me "Big Boss".

I got to know him when we played at Birmingham City together. I was a senior pro, he was a young player on loan from Arsenal and we hit it off straight away. I found him to be polite, respectful and he always came to me for advice. I was happy to dispense it.

We kept in touch and when he moved north to play for Bolton, he came to us for advice about where to live. He lives around the corner and we see a lot of him and his family. My wife even helped decorated his house.

Muamba came to see us before Valentine's Day to explain that he was going to propose to his girlfriend Shauna. We wished him well and were pleased for them when she said 'yes'.

So we were devastated when we got a call on Saturday to tell us that he'd collapsed. We've watched the news like everyone and we've been very pleased at the progress he's made since.

We're going to London to see him tomorrow and hope he continues to progress. We'd like to thank everyone who helped save the life of our friend and all those who have shown their support, people like Messi.

Not only is he a gifted footballer but he is also extremely humble, so it was good to see him score his 54th goal of the season against Granada to take his total for the Catalan club to 234 in just eight seasons.

It took me back to the night before last season's Champions League final when a few of us watched Barcelona train on the Wembley pitch. We were treated to a very special talent at work.

I watched Messi carefully as he played a five-a-side game with no goalkeepers in a small area marked by cones. I couldn't believe my eyes. Most clubs play these fast moving "boxes" because they put players under intense pressure with little space.

The idea is that the real game will seem easier and mistakes will be fewer, yet Messi didn't lose the ball once. He turned in space which I couldn't see - and I'd always considered myself good at seeing space.

His speed and quality of passing was better than all the world-class players around him. If he was under pressure, he flicked balls over the heads of other players without ever showboating.

Some British people talked of their confidence in Manchester United immediately after watching that session. Not me. I didn't think United stood a chance.

A day later, Messi played exactly like he'd done in practice. He never gave the ball away and his movement was better than any other on the pitch. He tampered with United, played with their heads as Barca beat the English champions with ease.

I spoke to several of the United players in the weeks after the game. They considered Messi unplayable. Two central defenders usually mark a lone striker by saying: "You go tight on the man and I'll drop off."

At Wembley, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were often marking nobody because Messi had dropped so deep. Patrice Evra said to me: "Messi gets into positions where you think you're safe, he can't hurt you and can't affect play. Next thing he's affecting play by coming directly at you."

Messi is not a conventional forward. He doesn't plays with his back to goal, he doesn't allow himself to be marked, so what is he? Who knows? Sometimes he's a winger, then he heads a midfield diamond. The only thing I'm convinced of is that he's a freak of nature.

The hardest thing in football is scoring goals and he does that with such ease and consistency. He also make it look like an art, like he's a computer game figure who performs everything to perfection.

And he has so many facets to his game. Messi's explosion of pace is such that he could slow the game to a walking pace if he wanted too before scooping the ball past an opponent or three.

He gets into more goalscoring positions than any player I've ever seen. Of course he's helped by having such good footballers around him, but he uses them well.

He'll often give the ball to Xavi or Iniesta before finding a better position for the return where he can do his damage. He finds that space better than anyone.

He does this week in week out, his work rate never dropping. I used to watch Zinedine Zidane or even play against him and think: "I would love to play on the same side as you."

I think the same of Messi now. I would have loved to have shared a football pitch with him, but I was coming to the end of my career as his skyrocketed.

He is Barça's leading all-time goalscorer at 24 and he is not even at his peak. That's why I'm shaking my head in disbelief as I write these words.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.


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