Skip to content

Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

Jul 11, 2014, 7:38 PM EDT

Messi AP

No sport stifles the individual more than world-class soccer. In baseball, you can intentionally walk a hitter, in football you can double-team a great receiver or pass rusher, in basketball and hockey you can tilt your defense toward the other team’s star. But only in soccer can you dedicate two or three players to surround a player more or less every minute of the game. It would be like two defenders following that receiver into the huddle and on to the bench.

Only in soccer can you, with enough dedication, make a great player disappear.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi has not scored a goal since the World Cup knockout round began. Teams playing Argentina have tilted the entire axis of their defenses to stop him from being a factor. He hardly seemed to touch the ball at all in Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands. He had one semi-dangerous free kick, one penalty-kick goal, a couple of curtailed runs and two or three interesting passes … but mostly he was silenced by a concerted Dutch effort.

On Sunday, Germany figures to defend Messi with more or less the same intensity and focus. Maybe more. Germany already made the great Cristiano Ronaldo disappear in its 4-0 battering of Portugal back in group play. German teams in the World Cup have long displayed the discipline and will to stifle a single player, no matter how great. This includes the man Messi has most often been compared with, his countryman, Diego Maradona. In 1990, West Germany beat Argentina 1-0 –- Argentina became the first team to not score in a World Cup final –- and Maradona was nowhere to be found.

[All 2014 World Cup news]

But, if you think about the sport, the amazing part is not that teams are able to take out one great player with a concerted effort. The amazing part is that great players EVER break through. The fact that Lionel Messi, four-time World Player of the Year, still does magical things with regularity, even when teams have designed entire game plans to keep him from even touching the ball, is mind-blowing. This, I think, is what makes him the most fascinating athlete in the world to watch.

In South Africa, at the World Cup four years ago, a player told me that if teams tried to defend Messi the way they defend most players, he would score three or four goals every game. This is because no player in the world – not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar – can match Messi’s absurd combination of balance, speed, control, power and imagination. Well, no one in any sport can. He is an incredible blend of familiar athletes from other sports -– he cuts and dodges like Barry Sanders, sees the field like Peyton Manning, passes like Sidney Crosby, maintains his balance like LeBron James. When he dribbles forward, the ball seems to stick to his feet, as if attached by Velcro, and with moves so subtle they are invisible at real speed, he makes defenders fall down.

Most of all, though, he is always prepared for the opportunity. This is the most extraordinary part of Messi to me. A soccer match is 90 minutes, and for most of those 90 minutes he is uninvolved. The other team is on the attack. He is being watched closely by three men. He must stand back to keep his defenders away from a teammate. You would expect Messi to be frustrated by this. There’s the classic story of Wilt Chamberlain leaving Kansas to go play for the Harlem Globetrotters. When asked why, he said: “I was tired of being guarded by four guys.”

[PST: If Argentina wins World Cup, will Messi be considered among best ever?]

But Messi does not get frustrated. A handful of times a game -– sometimes one or two times, sometimes five or six -– there is the slightest opening. The opponent blinks. A bad pass leads to a break. A defender slips. There is a tiny loss of concentration. And Messi strikes. In this way, he is not like any of those athletes above -– Barry Sanders would get 25 or 30 carries, Peyton Manning 40 or 50 passes, Crosby and James will have plenty of rushes up the ice and court.

No, in these moments, he’s more like James Bond, surrounded by henchmen, attached to a bomb, dangling over a water tank with sharks. When the moment is right, he has to do something extraordinary because he won’t get a second chance. In the 90th minute against Iran, scoreless tie, Messi gets the ball in a little bit of space, dribbles it to his left foot, unleashes a ridiculous 25-yard strike into the left-corner of the goal. In extra time against Switzerland, with the tournament on the line, Messi breaks through a defense that had mostly quieted him, draws everyone toward him, and drops off a pass to Angel di Maria, who scores the game-winner.

It is often in the later stages of the game, when players get tired and their concentration wanes just a little, that Messi gets his one good chance to do something extraordinary. And, more than anyone else perhaps since Maradona, he takes that chance and does something extraordinary.

The stories coming into the final seem to revolve around a simple question: If Messi leads Argentina to victory over Germany, will he have staked his claim as the greatest player ever? This has inspired long think pieces in various newspapers around the world as people remember Pelé and Maradona and Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer and so on. It has sparked people like Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to weigh in (Mourinho says Messi does not need to win the World Cup to have his place among the greatest ever, but either way he is not THE greatest ever).

And that’s a fun one, but the real question is this: Can Messi really lead Argentina against a German side that seems much deeper and better? Will Germany give him even the slightest chance to do something wonderful Sunday? No team can stop Kevin Durant from scoring a basket or Tom Brady from completing a pass or Alex Ovechkin from taking his shots. But soccer is different. German coach Joachim Low has reportedly developed a secret plan to deal with Messi, though I suspect it will look a lot like everyone else’s secret plan: Make him invisible. It will work for most of the game because that’s the sport.

But will there be a chance, two chances, three chances for Lionel Messi to get the ball in a tiny patch of field, slip by one defender, power through another, dribble the ball close like it is on a short leash, crack a shot toward an open corner or flip it to a wide-open teammate only a half-step onside? This is at the heart of Lionel Messi’s brilliance. It is impossible for one person to score a goal when 11 men are determined to stop him. Impossible. Somehow Messi does it all the time.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski.

Latest Posts
  1. Three things we learned from Sporting KC’s 4-0 thrashing of FC Dallas

    May 30, 2015, 12:48 AM EDT

    Krisztian Nemeth, Sporting Kansas City Krisztian Nemeth, Sporting Kansas City

    Three talking points from the latest installment of MLS’s “Viernes de Futbol.”

  2. WATCH: Krisztian Nemeth’s header puts Sporting KC ahead of FC Dallas, 1-0, at the half

    May 29, 2015, 10:01 PM EDT

    Sporting Kansas City v Houston Dynamo Getty Images

    Watch the lone first-half goal of the Sporting KC-FC Dallas match, televised on UniMas tonight.

  3. IRS official says more indictments to come in FIFA case

    May 29, 2015, 9:39 PM EDT

    Sepp Blatter, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, FIFA president

    An important I.R.S official told The New York Times that more indictments in the FIFA corruption investigation will be released.

  4. Orlando City SC announce private funding of new stadium, increased capacity

    May 29, 2015, 7:16 PM EDT

    LA Galaxy at Orlando City LA Galaxy at Orlando City

    Orlando City SC made a big announcement earlier today regarding the future of the club.

  5. Neymar’s former club, Santos, to sue over transfer to Barcelona

    May 29, 2015, 6:34 PM EDT

    AP

    Barcelona has yet to pay the remaining 83 million euros of Neymar’s transfer fee, and his former club, Santos, will sue.

  6. Men in Blazers podcast: Rog talks with U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos ahead of World Cup

    May 29, 2015, 5:41 PM EDT

    meninblazers

    The Men and Blazers speak with U.S. U-20 head man Tab Ramos ahead of the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.

  7. FA chairman Greg Dyke: Sepp Blatter’s full term will not last, out in two years

    May 29, 2015, 5:05 PM EDT

    greg_dyke Getty Images

    FA chairman Greg Dyke thinks Sepp Blatter’s fifth term of FIFA presidency won’t last.

  8. 2014 MLS Cup rematch: For the New England Revolution, it’s a new season, different game against LA Galaxy

    May 29, 2015, 4:10 PM EDT

    2014 MLS Cup - New England Revolution v Los Angeles Galaxy Getty Images

    On Fox Sports 1 this Sunday, the New England Revolution face LA Galaxy in a 2014 MLS Cup rematch.

  9. 2014-15 Premier League season review: PST’s Best XI of the Season

    May 29, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT

    Chelsea v Southampton - Premier League Getty Images

    Chelsea’s title-winning team dominates our picks. But there are still plenty of surprise inclusions.

  10. Leaves jail in ambulance, gives speech hours later: Jack Warner knows no FIFA scandal

    May 29, 2015, 3:20 PM EDT

    Trinidad and Tobago's National Security Minister Jack Warner talks with journalists after a meeting with residents in Port of Spain

    As the soccer world continues to react to Sepp Blatter’s fifth-term as FIFA president, his 72-year-old former VP is basically telling the law to take a long walk off a short pier.

  11. Blatter’s “Wolf of Wall Street” moment could play out the exact same way

    May 29, 2015, 2:05 PM EDT

    Nominee for Best Actor in "The Wolf of Wall Street" Leonardo DiCaprio arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd, 2014 in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO / Robyn BECK        (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    We’re in the shadow of just one rushed afternoon, and the FBI and others are watching the money float off the yacht, hoping to strike.

  12. 2014-15 Premier League season review: PST’s Manager of the Season

    May 29, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    Southampton v Aston Villa - Premier League Getty Images

    This award went down to the final vote. Do you agree with our pick?

  13. Sepp Blatter wins first vote 133-73, but not by enough to avoid second vote

    May 29, 2015, 1:02 PM EDT

    ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MAY 29:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter talks during the 65th FIFA Congress at the Hallenstadion on May 29, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images) Getty Images

    There were 209 votes, and nations could abstain from voting as well.

  14. FA Cup final preview: Aston Villa underdogs in Arsenal’s pursuit of back-to-back cups

    May 29, 2015, 12:47 PM EDT

    Can the Gunners win a second-straight FA Cup? Sherwood’s Villa stand in the way.

  15. Report: Benteke has $50 million release clause, Liverpool ready to trigger

    May 29, 2015, 12:17 PM EDT

    It's two in two for Christian Benteke, who scored Villa's second against Liverpool Getty Images

    Aston Villa is hoping to keep the 24-year-old Belgian, who has scored 49 goals in 99 matches since coming to the England from Genk in 2012.

  16. 2014-15 Premier League season review: PST’s Player of the Season

    May 29, 2015, 11:15 AM EDT

    Eden Hazard, Chelsea FC Getty Images

    One man dominates our votes. He probably dominates your picks too…

  17. Al-Hussein, Blatter address voters ahead of presidential election; First vote coming

    May 29, 2015, 11:06 AM EDT

    FIFA President Sepp Blatter walks past challenger for the FIFA presidency, FIFA vice president Prince Ali bin al Hussein (below,L) and UEFA President Michel Platini (below,R) during the opening of the 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich on May 29, 2015. FIFA president Sepp Blatter heads into a re-election vote amid FIFA's corruption scandal on May 29, 2015. "We need to fix FIFA right now"  Sepp Blatter told members of world football's governing body on May 29. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein and Sepp Blatter have addressed voters ahead of Friday’s presidential election, and we’re onto the vote.

Featured video

PST Extra reviews the 2014-15 season