Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am


True genius is every bit elusive as it is compelling. I know they are much closer to 50 than they are to 30, but try to imagine watching Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky in their prime today. It would be beyond great, it would be spectacular and particularly for those of us of an advanced age who remember those transcendent performers from some 20 years ago. There was no high-def TV back then, no internet and obviously no YouTube. There were some sports highlight shows but not too many. You watched their games, a little bit of post-game analysis, a DVD of their career highlights and that was basically it.

In these media saturated times we would be getting Jordan and Gretzky non-stop and for lovers of pure genius that would be manna from heaven. Well, good news travels fast which is why I am here to tell you that the genius of Jordan on the basketball court and Gretzky on the ice does indeed live today thanks to an unassuming 23-year-old Argentinean. Lionel Messi combines the indomitable will of Jordan with the uncanny vision of Gretzky. It's an unstoppable mix.

US soccer star Landon Donovan tried to put Messi into perspective for an America writer recently. 'If LeBron James went out and played basketball with high school kids - that's what Messi looks like when he plays against everyone else,' he said. 'And he's doing it against professionals.'

He stands a mere 1.7 metres, and yet Messi clearly towers over all around him. Two-time reigning world player of the year, the Barcelona standout has scored 103 goals over the past two years in 99 matches. This includes not only action in Spain's La Liga but also in the Champions League against the best teams in Europe. You don't even have to like soccer to like Messi because there are people who don't care for the piano that appreciate Beethoven.

Messi's latest tour de force may be his most impressive yet. Playing away to arch-rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champion League semi-finals, Messi broke the deadlock after 76 minutes by deftly steering the ball in at the near post from Ibrahim Affelay's cross.

But 12 minutes later he would top himself by taking the ball 50 yards and weaving his way past four mesmerised defenders before beating the keeper for his second goal. Game over and, barring a miracle in the return leg in Barcelona, Messi and crew will be in London's Wembley Stadium on May 28 for a memorable final most likely against Manchester United.

But playing United in England will be nothing compared to the unyielding pressure of playing Real Madrid in Spain. Barcelona is the hub of the autonomous Catalan region of northern Spain, a fiercely independent area that has coined the motto Mes que un club (More than a club) for their beloved team. During the Spanish civil war from 1936-39, FC Barcelona became the symbol of resistance to Generalissimo Franco and his Nationalistas, whose oppressive regime squashed any and all cultural uniqueness in Spain. Even today Catalans claim to feel the heavy hand of the central government in Madrid, helping to ensure that games between these two, dubbed El Clasico, transcend mere sports.

For a team renowned for spending so much money on stars that they have been coined Los Galacticos, it's no surprise the face of Real Madrid these days is the brilliant Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo. A dexterous and powerful force, Ronaldo has been deemed a petulant poseur for pouting his way out of Manchester United two seasons ago for a world record transfer fee of Euro80 million (HK$912 million). Despite scoring 42 goals in 49 matches this year, some of his best work has been off the pitch where his sculpted physique adorns billboards worldwide as an underwear model for Emporio Armani.

In contrast, the face of Barcelona has been referred to as a circus dwarf for his freakish ability to dribble a soccer ball. Messi is so non-descript his nickname is 'The Flea'. When the match is over he disappears. Off the pitch he is completely unadorned; there is no entourage, no chunky gold chains hanging around his neck and no diamond-studded earrings. He gives nothing to the media and expects the same in return. He's allergic to hype and wouldn't dream of tweeting. He just plays and, in the storied annals of football, few have ever played as well.

As a child growing up in Argentina he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency and when Barcelona were willing to pay over US$1,000 a month for his treatment, the prodigy left for Spain at 13 and never really looked back. He grew seven more inches and at 16 he made his debut with the big club. Down in South America the familiar refrain is that Messi's passport may say Argentina but his soul says Barcelona and his failure to score a goal at last year's World Cup, where his team were sent packing in the quarter-finals, merely added fuel to that xenophobic view. Messi never did mesh with the national team coach (the man whose greatness he is often compared to), Diego Maradona. But even the often less than gracious Maradona had to give him his due. 'He's at a select level, being the best in the world and a star at Barcelona,' he said. 'Leo is playing kick-about with Jesus.'

Maradona, as well as Jordan and Gretzky, know all about genius. They also know that no matter how intoxicating it is, genius is also is fleeting. Messi is genius and Messi is now. Catch him while you can.