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Stop anyone on the street in Europe, Latin America, Africa and even Asia, and chances are they'll know the name Lionel Messi — and they'll probably know what he did this week. The soccer phenom scored his 88th goal of the year, which is widely thought to be a world record.
And the year's not over yet.
On Sunday, Messi, 25, scored his 86th goal of the calendar year in a Spanish league game against Real Betis, in Seville. The goal, Messi's second of the game, gave Barcelona a 2-1 win over Betis, with the announcer booming, "A new goal king!"
Then on Wednesday, Messi scored two more goals against Cordoba, for a 2-0 win in the Copa del Rey (King's Cup) — bringing his yearly total to 88.
More goals for an already prolific goal scorer. But the art with which Messi plays soccer sometimes brings grown men to tears.
"Lionel Messi rewrites the history book! And we were all there to witness it, and be privileged by this artisan!" exclaimed the announcer.
The British TV announcer Ray Hudson, who narrated one of Messi's goals last Sunday, couldn't avoid poetry.
"Twisting, turning, like an alligator with a twitch, beautiful give and go! He takes a million pictures in that crystal ball that's inside of his head!" said Hudson. "This golden footballer — the most wonderful, stupendously magnificent player in the history of the game!"
Some Americans may be asking: Who?
'Not Even At His Peak'
Messi, who's from Argentina, doesn't have the playboy glamour that's made David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo famous across the Atlantic, says Mark Elkington, who covers Spanish soccer for Reuters.
"He's not what you'd call a classically good-looking guy," Elkington says. "He's quite small. He has this kind of humble, almost like a teenager, sort of shuffling along. He doesn't have all the trappings of the big superstar. And he plays football kind of like an excited teenager as well."
Messi was just 13 when he arrived to train with Barcelona. But he's loved even here in Madrid — enemy territory, home to a rival team, Real Madrid.
In a downtown Madrid park, Jesus Lerma kicks around a ball with his friends. They're all die-hard Real Madrid fans — but can't bring themselves to say anything bad about Messi.
"I respect him a lot as a football player. He's, like, probably the best dribbler. I like him a lot — his game, his kind of goals, his team playing," Lerma says.
With 88 goals, Messi has topped what was widely considered the four-decade-old record held by Germany's Gerd Mueller. There's now a bit of a dispute, with a Brazilian team now saying one of its players may have scored 89 goals in 1979.
Whatever the case, Messi has had a remarkable year and still has two more games to go.
And he's broken many other records, too, Elkington says.
"He's been world player of the year for three years in a row, and he's favorite to win it again. Secondly, the Champions League is the biggest club competition in the world, and he's been the top scorer in the Champions League for the last four years in a row. He's Barcelona's all-time leading scorer. And you've got to remember, he's only 25. In theory, he's not even at his peak yet," Elkington says.
Rise Of 'The Flea'
Messi's nickname is "La Pulga" or "The Flea," which is what the opposing team often thinks of him — a tiny 5 feet 7 inches, but an incessant nuisance that they cannot stop.
"He seems to run into a crowd of players, and you think, 'Oh, well he's never going to get through there.' And he seems to come through on the other side with the ball. And you just laugh and you go, 'That's unbelievable how he's done that,' " Elkington says.
Near the end of a tough game last year against Real Madrid, when players were getting sent off for rough tackles, Messi came out from nowhere, as he does, and scored two clean goals to win the game for Barcelona.
And as one commentator said at the time: "Just as it looked like petulance and bickering would win the day, up steps the 'little maestro' to show us all how 'The Beautiful Game' can still be played."
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