Barring illness or sudden injury, Lionel Messi will break the Spanish record for most goals in a single season. The Barcelona forward n...
Soccer doesn't have the same numbers fetish as other sports. In fact, the only real statistic most casual fans know is that Pele scored 1,000 goals. That's mostly because there was plenty of worldwide hype in 1969, as the Brazilian superstar bore down on "O Milesimo." Yet "O Milesimo" was something of a media creation: Pele's total included exhibition games and tours, a bit like that of another Brazilian striker, Romario, who reached the milestone in 2007. (The other two members of the 1,000 goal club, Austrian Franz Binder and another Brazilian, Arthur Friedenreich, are somewhat more obscure.)
Generally speaking, that's soccer's attitude to records: They're a bit of fun, nothing more. And that's probably a good thing, since, generally speaking there's an apples-and-oranges problem. Comparing different eras is hard enough, and it becomes nearly impossible when you throw in different leagues of different standards, let alone exhibitions and non-competitive games.
That said, Messi's record will be special. Spain's Liga is universally regarded as one of the top two leagues in the world, and all but three of Messi's games this season have been either in the league, the Champions League or against top-flight clubs in the Spanish Cup. He also tied this mark last season, suggesting this year is by no means a fluke. He has 23 assists, also a league-best, which means he either scored or created more than half of Barcelona's already-astounding 132 league goals. In statistical terms, we're talking Wayne Gretzky in 1982: a dominant player on a dominant team pulverizing records.
The frightening part in all this is that Messi is still just 23. Based on the trajectory of the average player—not that there is anything average about him—he has not yet entered his prime, which usually falls between 25 and 28. If his next six seasons are anything like his previous six (and he remains in Spain), he will be on the verge of breaking Telmo Zarra's all-time Liga goal-scoring record before he turns 29.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Messi, though, is his size: 5-foot-6 and 148 pounds. At a time when players are getting bigger and stronger, it seems counterintuitive that a man so small should thrive.
West Ham manager Avram Grant has his own theory. "With footballers getting larger, more mobile and more athletic, there's a premium on space," he says. "To create chances, you need room. Because of Messi's control, quickness and agility, he needs less room than others."
Indeed, Messi's ability to sail through crowded penalty areas with the ball seemingly super-glued to his foot is the stuff of YouTube highlight reels. But he is also a deadeye finisher and a creative passer who slots perfectly into Pep Guardiola's system at Barcelona. There is no denying Messi benefits tremendously from playing for such an attacking, pass-and-possession-oriented side. Lining up alongside other prolific forwards like Pedro and David Villa—who have 20 and 21 goals, respectively, this season—helps take some of the pressure off. And because they're on the same wavelength and complement each other well, it has a multiplier effect both on Messi's numbers and Barcelona's fortunes.
In that way, he's also like Gretzky, who had the luxury of sharing time on the ice with hockey's equivalents of Messi's supporting cast: Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier.
Suspending the Soap's Star
Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was suspended for two games last week for swearing at a camera while celebrating a goal in his club's 4-2 comeback win at West Ham. The four-letter expletive—accompanied by an angry-sounding "Come on!" as if Rooney were challenging the television camera to a fight—was clearly audible to viewers around the world. Rooney appealed, citing the fact that he apologized shortly after the match, and insisted his outburst was also the result of abuse he had taken from the home crowd, but the ban was upheld Wednesday. He served the first game of his suspension in United's 2-0 win over Fulham Saturday, and he will sit out next weekend's FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City. (The suspension doesn't apply in the Champions League, so he is expected to start against Chelsea on Tuesday night in the second leg of United's quarterfinal.)
Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers' Association, the English players' union, criticized the suspension.
"Whilst the use of foul and abusive language is not condoned, there is an acceptance by all parties within the game that 'industrial language' is commonly used," he said in a statement. "If sanctions are to be imposed in such circumstances then this has to be done in a balanced and consistent manner and participants made aware of this fundamental change in approach."
Taylor is correct in saying that the rules need to be clearly laid out. And as anyone who has watched (or played) soccer at any decent level can confirm, foul language is common.
The difference, however, is that Rooney is not just a soccer player. He's an actor in an unscripted soap broadcast around the world on a weekly basis. And he's rewarded handsomely, not just to play the game, but to be on stage. Manchester United's television revenues in 2010 were close to $100 million—some of which pays his salary.
While it may be unrealistic for broadcasters to demand that players maintain a PG rating on the pitch, it's reasonable for them to demand that a guy who walks up to a microphone and rattles off a series of live F-bombs is punished—especially the way they bankroll the sport. Given that this was evidently unclear to Rooney and Taylor before last week, maybe the United striker should have been let off with a warning and a fine. But from now on, ignorance—or crowd abuse, for that matter—should not be an excuse.