RIO DE JANEIRO — A four-time world player of the year, Argentina’s Lionel Messi is gifted with talents that most footballers can only dream of. What makes him special is that he possesses not just one or two but a combination of special skills that give him an edge over just about everyone.
Although he hasn’t played brilliantly in every game of this World Cup, Messi’s talents have been on display on Argentina’s road to Sunday’s final against Germany. Here are five traits that explain what makes the Argentina captain so difficult to stop.
There are plenty of players who could outrun Messi in a 100-meter dash. But running with the ball is a different story. Messi can control the ball at close to top speed, making him an excellent dribbler. Also, it’s his acceleration rather than his top speed that cuts up defenses. Few defenders can keep up when Messi revs up from standstill, creating space for his left-foot shot.
Like former Argentina great Diego Maradona, Messi uses his short stature to his advantage. His low center of gravity enables him to make quick turns and to stay on his feet when challenged. Often, the only way to knock him off balance is to foul him. Defenders at the World Cup have been taking turns tackling Messi to spread the risk of getting booked around the team.
Messi is one of the world’s top free-kick takers, striking the ball with impressive accuracy with his magic left foot. Almost always he hits the target or just misses it — you rarely see Messi blast a free kick five meters over the crossbar. In Argentina’s final group-stage match, Nigeria gave Messi two free kick opportunities near the penalty area toward the end of the first half. He elegantly curled the first one over the wall, but goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was well-positioned and stopped it. By the second free kick, Messi had fine-tuned his aim, and struck the ball perfectly inside the post. Enyeama jokingly asked the referees during the break to not give Messi any more free kicks.
Patience is a perhaps and underrated virtue for a football player, and it’s one that has served Messi well in the World Cup. Every opponent has come with a plan to stop him, by closing down his space and tackling him as soon as he touches the ball. As a result Messi has looked out of the game for long periods. But instead of hanging his head and getting frustrated, Messi keeps looking for openings, patiently awaiting a moment when defenders take their focus off him for just a split second. That’s when he strikes. Against Iran, that moment came in injury time when he scored his second goal of the tournament. Against Switzerland, it happened in extra time as he set up Angel Di Maria’s winning goal with a piercing run down the middle.
Messi also stands out for his ability to read the game, mapping out paths to the opponent’s goal in his mind before the opponent does. That’s key to understanding why he’s such a prolific scorer. Knowing by instinct where a gap will open up for a quick pass or shot gives him an advantage over others, though it can also complicate things for the team. Sometimes Messi lets chances slip away by being too smart for his Argentina teammates, who aren’t in sync with him to the same degree as Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in Barcelona.