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June 30, 2010

Why Messi has been the best

Bradley By Jeff Bradley
ESPN The Magazine

JOHANNESBURG -- There's just something about seeing a player like Lionel Messi perform in person for the first time. Television doesn't do him justice.

So I realized Sunday night at Soccer City Stadium, from high above the field. I could not take my eyes off Argentina's No. 10. From the way he ghosts around the field waiting for the moment when he can slide into a position where a teammate can easily get him the ball, to the way he seemingly runs at full speed while keeping the ball in close control, to the way he lowers his shoulder and protects the ball when he enters traffic.

The thing I would say I did not truly appreciate about Messi from seeing him only on television was the man's power. Messi is only 5-foot-7, but brute strength is a very important part of his game. With a low center of gravity and legs that churn like a short-yardage running back seeking an extra yard for a first down, Messi is the rare player who has both jaw-dropping technique and power.

And for me, despite the fact that Messi has yet to score a goal in this World Cup, he is clearly the best player I have seen.

No player occupies as much of the opposition's attention -- clearing space for his teammates and requiring two or three defenders to try to shut him down -- as Messi. No player creates as many dangerous situations for his teammates per 90 minutes as Messi.

And from where I sat Sunday night, I can say no player in this World Cup provides as much excitement. Every time Messi touched the ball, the 85,000 at Soccer City rose in anticipation. More often than not, Messi did not disappoint, either with a darting run through traffic, a quick pass or a bulldozing run through multiple defenders. He also cracked a few nice shots.

Interestingly, I choose to write this piece now because in the quarterfinal against Germany on Friday, Messi either will make me look good or Argentina will be going home. And this World Cup would have passed and I would not have written about him.

I fear Germany may be able to take care of Argentina, which might lead the way for folks to proclaim Spain's David Villa, Germany's Thomas Müller, Japan's Keisuke Honda, Brazil's Luis Fabiano (or a few of his teammates) or the Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder as the best player over the past month in South Africa.

No way.

"Messi is the best player in the world," Germany's Sami Khedira says. "You can't shut him down for the entire match. You have to try to contain him with a collective effort."

Khedira knows firsthand, as his Stuttgart club faced Messi's Barcelona in the Champions League. Messi scored twice and set up another goal to lead Barcelona to a 4-0 win over Stuttgart and a 5-1 aggregate score. I watched both of those games on TV.

But until I saw Messi in person, I didn't truly appreciate his greatness.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.