There’s more to Messi than a new record for goals

The essence of Lionel Messi is not in the bare statistic that now makes him the most prolific scorer of goals in a single year in the history of the game.

It is in the way that he does it. It is the desire of the man who, at age 25 and possibly just reaching the middle of his career, makes every game seem like such a joy, for himself and others.

There is a child in Messi that will not grow up, thank goodness.

He was injured last Wednesday. His left knee took the weight of Benfica’s goalkeeper, Artur, in a challenge. As Messi was carted away by the medics, the distress of missing perhaps several months was writ large across his face. When tests proved nothing was broken, merely extensively bruised, Messi did as Messi invariably does. He demonstrated that impulse, that absolute determination, to play the next game.

“He doesn’t need this kind of effort to show how much he loves this sport,” Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova tried to tell us, and to tell him.

Messi wasn’t listening. He was focused on the flight to Seville and on showing his coach Saturday that he was good and ready to play against Betis.

This is a tough opponent. Physically and spiritually, Betis is a team that even Barça finds hard to beat, especially in its tightly packed, emotionally charged Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium.

Messi, with another pair of goals Sunday, made sure that Barcelona won the game, 2-1…

If comparisons across different eras mean anything, we made them long ago. If proof were needed that soccer is a team game, the way that Iniesta and Sánchez passed and moved for Messi reiterated that.

One thing largely overlooked as people obsess about the statistics of Messi’s feat is that he is the very opposite of a one-man attack. He plays for others, and he exudes joy in setting up goals for his teammates. Attempts to count assists are irrelevant because his presence alone — wherever he is on the field, defenders will follow him — opens space for others.

I love watching Messi whether he and Barca are in a match with a team I support or someone I care nothing about. He has the ability to surprise a watching fan that must absolutely confound and drive his opponents into raving lunacy. All done with a grace and creative impulsiveness that few athletes in any sports ever demonstrate.

I hope he will be around for many, many more years.

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