By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 21, 2012) US Soccer Players — There's one of those quotes that gets picked up by wire services and shuffled around the internet from Barcelona's manager, Pep Guardiola. In his post-game comments following another Lionel Messi hat-trick, he compares Lionel Messi to Michael Jordan. It's perhaps the fairest indication yet of what the current candidate for world's greatest player brings to his team and the game.
As you probably can't help but notice, Messi is no longer up for greatest player in the world. That's taken as a given. The conversation has shifted to whether or not he's the best anyone has ever seen.
Michael Jordan was in a similar place twenty years ago. I remember being in 9th-grade trying to tease that out with my friends. For whatever reason I wanted to believe the LA Lakers had an answer for the Chicago Bulls. This was the 1990-91 season, and fortunately the NBA playing into June saved me from my eventual embarrassment. Chicago won. Chicago would always win when it mattered with Jordan on the floor. I did get a greeting card in the mail that summer. Taped inside was the newspaper box score of the deciding Game Five. The card was from a girl. Trust me, email will never be as humbling.
I'll freely admit I didn't see any of that coming. Jordan was part of a group for me, great but not the greatest, that would contest for titles but wouldn't end up dominating the game. Here's where I also admit to growing up in North Carolina, where the local CBS affiliate postponed whatever was on the network schedule to show UNC basketball games. I'd watched him since I was seven years old in the heart of one of the most basketball obsessed parts of the country, and didn't get it until I was in high school and he already had a ring.
First day of 10th grade, guess what we were talking about? A five game series that ended two months earlier and a season that wouldn't start for two more.
By graduation, there wasn't much of an argument. Well, there was but the conversation had moved to 'cross-sports greatest professional athlete period.' Remember, we're talking about an era where Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders played two professional sports at the same time and still it was Jordan.
It hardly needs to be stressed that's where Messi is right now. Like Jordan, there's a team aspect that will get turned up and down like a volume knob depending on what point someone is trying to make. Messi with club or country. Messi without the Barca passing game. Messi without players that on their own disrupt other teams. It's just ways to try to get around what we're seeing. Like with Jordan, one player dominant, on the best team in the world.*
For European club soccer, this is the kind of thing you can't plan for. A moment when a player pushes the game, taking all involved to another level of mainstream interest. We all know that soccer is the world's most popular sport, but there's still the question of how popular. We're well into an era where every tournament that comes next is a continuation of a success story. All the numbers trend higher, the interest grows, and now there's the added bonus of the greatest player in the history of the game.
What happens next is the question the National Basketball Association was unable to answer. Jordan's era was – at least for me but let's admit I wasn't alone – a surprising highpoint pushing a golden era of Showtime Lakers and Celtics into the international mainstream in a way that sport had never seen. Yet in retrospect, it almost looked like a slow buildup. The issues of the 1970's solved by the Showtime era in the '80's. The popularity of the game already high, exploding in the early 1990's. There was the disruption of Jordan trying to prove he too was a two-player sport, but his return to basketball only increased the intensity. Then it was over. A case study, if you will, of not just a league, but a global sport, that had unbelievable traction and lost it.
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*Footnote: Yes, I know. There's nothing our European friends and even some of our fellow Americans that have taken to soccer like better than pointing out that North American professional sports crown 'world champions' without inviting the rest of the world. Other countries play professional basketball. Well, it's an easily overlooked trophy compared to the NBA rings, but Jordan's Bulls won the world championship the only year they contested it in 1997. The NBA didn't necessarily send the reigning champion to the old McDonalds championship. In '97, they did. The Bulls went to Paris, beat PSG and Olympiacos, and lifted that trophy too. Jordan was named MVP, playing without Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Barcelona's basketball team finished last in the six-team tournament.