How Lionel Messi achieves effortless perfection

There is a term or rather, an idea, that Japanese people use that is said to have no real definition whatsoever. This concept, Shibumi they call it, is something relating, but not limited to, a particular aesthetic – simple, extremely subtle and yet so powerful. An unobtrusive beauty that is quiet in refinement, noble and fulfilling in a manner that can hardly be approached or described by analytical thoughts.

Shibumi, for all its lack of a true definition, is something more loosely connected to a different, more westernised term, if you will, and the closest we can get to its true mysterious nature is by saying it symbolises “effortless perfection,” something that with being perfect cannot be a part of nature but rather in control of it, something that is as unfathomable as it is remarkable. Unmeasurable in all its glory, and nobility.

It is rather difficult to describe a concept that has no definition, and as someone who can barely wrap his head around it himself, a task too tall for me to begin with. Now, while no ordinary words may be of use in this situation, the footballing world might serve a better purpose.

In that world, Shibumi bears a different term, or a different name, if you will. In football, we would call it Lionel Andres Messi. And yes, this is yet another one of those odes to the greatest footballer to ever grace the green pastures of this beautiful game. Because, in a society where we take his indescribable genius for granted, Lionel Messi has become – underappreciated.

The one above all

Saying this or that footballer is the greatest player of all time is a pretty controversial thing to state. How do we even conclude someone is worthy of such a title? How can we say for certain that it is Lionel Messi and not Cristiano Ronaldo or Pele or Maradona? Maybe the biggest problem is already there: Too many names to begin with.

But while when we talk about Messi we always compare him with the latter two, the rest always get compared with the little Argentinian because he is a reference to most, if not all of them. And this has already moved past being simply about the stats – the number of goals scored hardly even matter, the sublime assists and passes he sends week in, week out are also overlooked, and so are his dribbles, his footballing IQ, his versatility and his talent.

“I have never seen anyone like Leo Messi. He is a miracle from God!” – Arda Turan

No one really cares that just one guy has scored nearly half of all the goals Barcelona have scored in the last 10 years (46%). Just for reference sake, Antonio Di Natale is the next in line, having scored 45% of all of Udinese’s goals. No one bats an eye when some analytics say that not a single attacking player in the top five European leagues who has attempted as many forward passes as Messi has a better success rate than him. No one even cares that he does this with 31 years on his back, and he’s somehow getting even better.

His goal and assist contribution has risen significantly this season and is, so far, edging out even the seasons he played in his prime years. For example, while he boasted a total of 0.33 goals + assists per 90 minutes in the record-breaking year of 2012, now he averages 0.58. Just like fine wine, Messi gets better with age.

With 404 goals in a single nation top flight, there are only two players who have better figures than Leo: Jimmy McGrory with 410 (1922-1938) and Josef Bican with 500 (1931-1955). McGrory might be in trouble very soon and Bican can only hope Messi soon slows down. But that is exactly the thing with him – he is showing no signs of stopping. While Cristiano Ronaldo was the first to reach 400 goals in top five European leagues, Messi has done it in 63 fewer games.

“Messi is the Mozart of football.” – Radomir Antić

Sure, there is already a huge difference in physique when it comes to prime Messi and the Messi we are watching now. Maybe he can’t run as fast or as much as he used to but his mind and his feet are still as quick in making decisions as ever.

Now that he might not have the lungs to go the distance for 90 minutes every week, he has transitioned to a more deeper role in midfield, orchestrating and creating plays rather than always finishing them. In the season 2018/19, Messi is the fourth best player in deep progression or progressing the ball into the opposition final third (11.7 passes, dribbles, and carries per 90 minutes).

Only Toni Kroos (12.3), Thiago Alcantara (12.2) and Jerome Boateng (12) are better than the Argentine (at the moment of writing this piece). But those players truly excel at that because it is primarily their job, among others, of course. Messi, on the other hand, is still “only” a forward. At least on paper and when we have to count the goals he scored. On the pitch, however, he is… Everything.

“Messi is God, as a person and even more as a player. I knew him when he was a boy and I’ve watched him grow. He deserves it all.” – Samuel Eto’o

The greatest player without the greatest prize

Most footballers aspire to be the best, many live to win their domestic league titles, and even more of them would want the Champions League title in their cabinets but all of them have it as their dream to be champions of the world. And Messi desires that more than anything.

Bringing glory to his country and returning back home with that trophy in his arms. Surprisingly, that is the only remaining medal that he craves but might never get – a player of such stupendous talent and extraordinary skill will most likely never be crowned a world champion because as with everyone, Father Time is catching up and is as cruel as ever. He may let Messi have that one last hurrah in four years’ time but even for him, that will be a long shot.

“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius.” – Diego Armando Maradona

At the end of the day, this is the dealbreaker in the conversation of the greatest of all time. How can someone without a World Cup trophy be considered the greatest ever? How can we say that about a man that has never won anything with his country apart from the Olympic gold medal as a kid? If you want to be the best in a sport than you have to conquer the best competition that specific sport has to offer. In football, that is definitely the World Cup, no doubt about it. And Messi? Nothing as of yet.

His compatriot Diego Armando Maradona has done it. Heck, Pele has done it three times. But, football is a team sport, is it not? When it all comes down to it, that’s the only thing that matters, right? It was never about how great the individual is but how the team can perform as a collective.

“They tell me that all men are equal in God’s eyes, this player makes you seriously think about those words.” – Ray Hudson

Both Maradona and Pele had excellent supporting casts when they won their World Cups. Pele wasn’t even the top scorer in any of the four grand competitions he played in and was Brazil’s top scorer only once in 1958. He did win the Golden Ball in 1970, just as Messi did in 2014 but he had teammates that were definitely doing their part of the work.

This is not to say that Argentina without Messi is a bad team. They are not, and they certainly were not four years ago when they reached the final only to fall against Germany but without their talisman, they are definitely not contenders for the title. The best proof lies in the qualification rounds of last year’s World Cup in Russia.

With Messi, Gauchos got 15 out 18 points, winning five games and losing only one. Without him, though, they got seven points out of 24, winning one game, drawing four and losing three. With Messi, they scored nine while without him they scored six.

“Fella’s a genius. Best ever by a distance in my lifetime. Never really saw Pele… Souness, Gullit, Venables and now Rooney agree Messi is the best they have seen. He plays a game with which we are not familiar.” – Gary Lineker

Still, no matter how important he might be for his country, no matter if he dragged them to three national grand finals, he will never be their hero. No, everyone only remembers that he lost all of the finals he participated in with Argentina. No Golden Balls, no ceremonies, no banners, and no superlatives will ever replace that.

Just ask the newest Golden Ball and the Ballon d’Or winner, and also a World Cup runner-up, Luka Modrić. He would trade all of that for the big trophy in a heartbeat.

And so would Messi.

Shibumi

There really have been many names thrown at Lionel Messi over the years: the greatest, outstanding, the best, magnificent, magical, overwhelming, stupendous, marvellous, wonderful, genial… We could probably go on for the whole night but the point has really been made with the first in that line: The Greatest.

You would think that after five Ballon d’Ors, countless titles and honours, numerous superlatives and evidence, we would not take such a player for granted. Now that I think about it, how do you even take both Barcelona’s and Argentina’s best goalscorers in history for granted? No, wait, how do you take La Liga’s best goalscorer in history, the best goalscorer in El Clasico’s history, top assist provider in La Liga’s history, top goalscorer in a calendar year, the first player to be top scorer in five UEFA Champions League seasons, the fastest to reach 100 goals in the Champions League, the all-time top assister in Copa America, World Cup Golden Ball winner, and five-time best player of the world for granted? Oh, and this list could go on even longer.

“Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him.” – Pep Guardiola

You may think there is a really complicated explanation behind it but there is not. In fact, it’s fairly simple, to tell you the truth. We all have Lionel Messi to blame. Why? He made us into spoiled little brats, that is why.

Whether you are a Barcelona fan or not, the chances are you have seen him play at least once. Maybe live, maybe on TV, it doesn’t matter. Or maybe you have been living under a rock and have only heard these tales of greatness, tales of an alien born in (or brought to) Rosario that set the world ablaze. Nonetheless, by seeing his magic at all times, we have become immune to it.

Lionel Messi is a magician that has turned magic into something – ordinary. He is no longer playing football, he IS football. Maybe he doesn’t have the fanciest tricks up his sleeves or the fastest legs you have ever seen. No, he is all about doing the impossible with the simplest of moves.

The world has become so used to everything he does that we are no longer amazed by it, no longer in awe of everything he does because he does it like it’s nothing. Instead, we are searching for other players to fill that void, that amazement or that glimmer of hope that we just might be surprised once again in the future. That’s why we no longer give him all the awards, all the superlatives and all the glory.

“Who is the best player in the world? Leo Messi. Who is the best player ever? Leo Messi.” – Arsene Wenger

So how do you define Lionel Messi? The same way you would define Shibumi. You can’t. Lionel Messi is someone relating, but not limited to, a particular aesthetic – simple, extremely subtle and yet so powerful. An unobtrusive beauty that is quiet in refinement, noble and fulfilling in a manner that can hardly be approached or described by analytical thoughts.

Lionel Messi, for all his lack of a true definition, is someone more loosely connected to a different, more westernised term, if you will, and the closest we can get to his true mysterious nature is by saying he symbolises “effortless perfection,” something that with being perfect cannot be a part of nature but rather in control of it, something that is as unfathomable as it is remarkable. Unmeasurable in all its glory, and nobility.

The Greatest.