In a year of corrupt officials and disappointing performances, Lionel Messi reminded us of why we love sport.
Sporting glory in 2011 was carried on the back of a flea
The year 2011 has not been a shining one for sports. The aura of invincibility that surrounded two former GOATs (Greatest of all time), Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, is considerably dimmed.
The winner of the Formula One title was as much in doubt as the hare and tortoise race if the hare had decided to take it seriously. Cricket continues to be plagued by match-fixing allegations. And the French almost ruined everybody's fun at the Rugby World Cup. Meanwhile, the clowns that run Fifa continue to stick their heads in the sand over allegations of corruption and racism in football; nothing to see here, move along, move along.
But through the darkness, one man continues to shine.
When Lionel Messi skipped past the Santos goalkeeper to slot Barcelona's fourth goal in the Club World Cup final, he capped a year in which any doubts about his greatness were ruthlessly put to bed. A year in which commentators have simply run out of superlatives to describe La Pulga ("the flea", on account of his speed).
Week after week, he leaves opponents, experts and fans speechless. Some of his goals would be the finest of many a lesser player's career; Messi effortlessly scores two or three a week.
Prolific? Doesn't do justice to an output of 59 goals during 2011. Consistent? Top scorer in Champions League for a record third season; scorer in six competitions this year; favourite to retain the Fifa Ballon d'Or title he won in 2010. Genius? Close, but by the end of another Messi 90 minutes, even that loses its power through repetition.
Doubters persist - usually Brazilians, Madrileños or disgraced pundits (Andy Gray: can Messi do it on a cold night in Stoke?)
And then there is the Cristiano Ronaldo fan club. Except, while the Portuguese may be head and shoulders above most other players, the Messi versus Ronaldo debate was settled a long time ago. Ronaldo may score a comparable number of goals, but Messi trumps him in every other category: skill, teamwork, attitude, big-game temperament.
Never has the difference between the two been more stark than December's El Clasico. As Messi conducted play, Ronaldo suffered a nightmare. He may look like, and even think he actually is, Superman; in reality, he's Lex Luthor.
Messi's only battle now is with history. Only by winning the World Cup - emulating Pele and Diego Maradona - can Messi truly be called the greatest player of all time, the non-believers say.
That comparison of players across different eras is a pointless, albeit irresistible, temptation, but this is a lazy assumption.
There may have been a time when the World Cup was the ultimate showcase of the planet's best players, but that is no longer the case. The Uefa Champions League, a competition in which Messi excels on a yearly basis, has long usurped it as football's premier tournament. Club football is quite simply better than international football now.
At club level, Pele's astonishing goal record is skewed by the fact that he was only tested against (often inferior) Brazilian defences. Maradona, whose brilliance helped to pull off miracles for Napoli, only rarely showed the consistency that Messi has shown so far in his career.
When the 2014 World Cup in Brazil comes around Messi will be 26, the same age that Maradona was when he conquered all before him in 1986. Messi won't lose too much sleep though. Even if he was to retire today, it's unlikely we'll find the words to do his career justice.
Comparing perhaps Holland's two finest ever footballers, the famous Dutch sportwriter Nico Scheepmaker once said: "Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one."
Perhaps a similar twisting of superlatives - the way Messi twists opposition defences - is the only way to capture his standing at the end of 2011.
Pele may be the best. But Maradona is the better one. Messi, however, is the greatest.
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