Magical Messi stands in Man United's way
Even in my head, the question sounds stupid. "Can Lionel Messi get any better?"
The Argentine's biographer Luca Caioli thinks for a moment. "Messi's football is so good right now that the only person we have to compare him to is Diego Maradona, because like Maradona he can change the story of a match by himself," he says. "And if you look at Maradona, he was at his best in the 1986 World Cup, when he was 25. Messi is 23. So can Messi be better next year? Of course.
"No-one can really predict what will happen to this boy. Every trainer I interviewed for the book, from his first in Argentina - Salvador Ricardo Aparicio - to his Barca coaches Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola and his former Argentina boss Alfio Basile all told me the same thing: 'We don't know what the limit is for this kid'."
If the last three seasons are any guide, the sky is the limit for Lionel Andres Messi. Over that period, he has scored 137 goals in 158 games, becoming the youngest player to win the Ballon d'Or twice and helping Barcelona to three successive La Liga titles and the 2009 Champions League, along with several other trophies in the process.
On Saturday, with a heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders, Messi will lead Barca into battle at Wembley as they take on Manchester United in the Champions League final, a chance for the Blaugrana's number 10 to take himself and his all-star team a little further down the road to immortality.
Messi, Barca's leader by prolific example, is a phenomenon, a sportsman who does impossible things as a matter of course. It is perhaps more remarkable that in an age when many of his peers seem vaingloriously obsessed by self-promotion, he carries out his acts of genius while wearing a look of guilt that suggests he's not entirely sure he should even be there in the first place.
"He's a very timid person, hugely shy," adds Caioli. "I spoke to his best friend when he was a child, Cintia Arellano, and she told me he didn't speak at school. Even now, it's hard to tell what mood he's in." When he arrived at Barca as a 4ft 7in 13-year-old, his fellow under-graduates were bemused. "We thought he was mute," admitted Gerard Pique.
In the 10 years since his arrival at Barca's famed La Masia academy, Messi has let his feet do most of the talking. Today, the discussion over the identity of the world's finest player - for so long pitting Messi against Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, his polar opposite - barely exists; instead, the debate centres on whether Messi deserves to be bracketed with legends such as Pele, Maradona and Johan Cruyff.
"Yes, he is on his way to becoming one of the greats," said former Barca player and coach Cruyff last month. Even Maradona, not a man prone to extolling other people's virtues, has acknowledged Messi's threat: "Only at the end of history will we see who was the greatest, Maradona or Messi."
Messi's goalscoring record in the last three seasons is staggering. Pic credit: BBC
I asked Roberto Carlos, who played directly against Messi several times, what he was like to face. "He has absolutely fantastic speed in the dribble," said the former Real Madrid left-back. "It was very, very hard to play against him. He is the best in the world no question, and he is young so he has plenty of time to improve too."
Argentina coach Sergio Batista is well versed in footballing legend. Given his history and his current job, the 48-year-old - a man who won the World Cup playing a supporting role alongside Maradona in 1986 - is superbly placed to discuss the planet's most talked-about sportsman.
"Leo is a virtuoso," Batista told me. "He does things with the ball that just seem impossible. He's got great ability. His control of the ball when he is running at high speed is excellent. He has a superb shot. There is precision in his passing. To summarise... he's got everything. He has every single attribute you would want to find in a player. That's the reason why he is the best footballer in the world."
I asked Batista to describe what it is like to take a training session comprising Messi. "He likes to be permanently in contact with the ball, of course," he says. "In every session he has the same enthusiasm and he is always one of the last to leave the pitch at the end. He likes to stay until after the finish, to have a play with the ball on his own or do some training exercises with the goalkeepers. He just loves to play."
And how we love to watch him. There are many different ways of enjoying sport, but I live in constant hope that one of the protagonists will take my breath away. I not only want them to do something I know I couldn't; I want them to do what I hadn't even imagined was possible.
Step forward Messi, sport's ultimate 21st century inventor. He creates space where there appears to be none; it often seems as though he is playing in a vacuum which no-one else can get close to, and when he gets in front of goal he finds new ways of putting the ball into the net. He doesn't just do things better than everyone else, he is now doing them with devastating relentlessness too.
He did not start his career as a striker, but Messi has scored 52 goals this season. We're talking about a half-century in a sport that is not supposed to deal in such figures. Fifties are the reserve of the batsman celebrating a run milestone in cricket, or the thrower checking out with a bull in darts. Before Messi, it was not considered possible in one of the best football leagues in the world. Before Messi, it wasn't possible.
Messi can be stopped - Ferdinand
True, Ronaldo has scored 53 times this season. But consider this: when Messi scored his second goal in the Bernabeu in Barca's Champions League tie at Real Madrid in April, it was his 52nd strike in 49 games. It all-but sealed a place in the Champions League final and Barca had already wrapped up a third successive La Liga title.
At the same time Ronaldo, who failed to get on the scoresheet in the semi-finals in Europe, had 42 goals in 49 games. In his last four La Liga games, with the title gone and Real out of Europe, Ronaldo has run riot, scoring 11 goals and reaching 40 in the league. Hugely impressive? Yes. Record-breaking? Yes. But there is an element of personal glory about it, as he and his team-mates - who have concentrated on helping Ronaldo - have conceded.
Messi, on the other hand, has gone without a goal since the colossal second he scored in the Bernabeu that night in April. As Barca took their foot off the accelerator the club's - and Messi's - focus turned to Saturday. "Goals are only important if they win you games," he says. "My interest is in the collective success of the team, not individual glory."
Messi, being kept fresh for Saturday's final, did not even feature in Barcelona's final two league games, his last appearance coming on 11 May in a 1-1 draw at Levante. He has been itching to get back on a football field, cutting a frustrated figure as he sat on the bench for the whole 90 minutes against Deportivo on 15 May.
I cast my mind back six years to another occasion when he sat on the Barca bench and what, in a footballing sense, is starting to feel like a JFK moment.
When Messi scored his first goal for Barca on 1 May, 2005, I was watching Barca-Albacete on TV at home. A routine 1-0 win for Barca seemed to be on the cards when manager Rijkaard threw on a fragile-looking 17-year-old in the 88th minute of the league contest.
Within two minutes of jogging on to the pitch Messi had a cute finish disallowed for a marginal offside and less than a minute later he had his goal - the precocious one belying his tender years to play a give-and-go with Ronaldinho, keep his composure and loft the ball sublimely over the on-rushing goalkeeper and into the net.
It was a thunderbolt moment; a handful of seconds etched into my consciousness, in the beginning thanks to the captivating nature of the cameo and now, six years later, for what it has come to represent: the first significant act of one of the finest footballers of them all.
Typically for one so humble, Messi recalls the day by paying tribute to Rijkaard: "I'll never forget the fact that he launched my career, that he had confidence in me while I was only 16 or 17."
Rijkaard wasn't the only one. Upon collecting his Ballon d'Or trophy in 2006, Ronaldinho gave the world notice of what was to come. "This award says I'm the best player in the world, but I'm not even the best player at Barcelona. Since he began to come and train with us we knew we would go down this path. Someday I will explain that I was at the birth of one of the footballing greats: Leo Messi."
Messi's career has since gone through the stratosphere. Trophies, awards, accolades, praise from peers and adulation from audiences everywhere has justly followed every goal he has scored and every beautiful moment he has created.
But where did his drive, his burning desire to succeed, come from? I asked Caioli, who spoke to the man himself as well as a collection of family, friends, coaches and colleagues to put together his book: 'The Inside Story of the Boy Who Became A Legend'.
"You cannot underestimate how much this boy wanted to become a footballer," said Caioli, who has also written books on Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho. "He took difficult, brave decisions. He left home when he was 13, a small boy, and accepted staying at Barca's academy at La Masia, thousands of miles away from his family in Argentina.
"But you can't possibly know you're going to become a footballer. You can lose, no? He had the will to try, he had the determination to succeed. This passion he has for the game, it is so pervasive it enables him to put everything else in his life to one side."
It is just as well that Messi does not let outside influences effect him. He has been called a "genius" by Maradona, a "sensation" by Cruyff and a "PlayStation footballer" by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. "Once, they said they can only stop me with a pistol - but you need a machine gun to stop him," said Barca legend Hristo Stoichkov. After a Messi exhibition in one game last year, Real Zaragoza's Ander Herrera went further: "I'm not sure he's human."
On Saturday, Messi will be hoping to score his first goal on English soil and have another decisive say on European football's annual showpiece. After a disappointing 2010 World Cup he will have to wait another three years to deliver on the biggest stage of all, but a global audience of hundreds of millions provides him with a significant platform in the interim.
Messi's place in the pantheon of greats is already assured; the only question now is whether he can reach the summit. On Saturday night, we may be a little closer to finding out. "I don't obsess about being the best in the world," said Messi in an interview once. But then again, he doesn't have to.