Team sports are compelling precisely because it’s teams rather than individuals that achieve goals.
Still, even in soccer, perhaps the ultimate team sport, attention should be paid when an outstanding individual breaks a long-standing record. By scoring three times in Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Malaga on Wednesday, Lionel Messi racked up his 68th goal, breaking the European club record for goals in a single season, which Gerd Mueller of Bayern Munich had set in the 1972-73 season.
It’s a bit ironic that Messi’s achievement should come during a season when Barcelona has not only surrendered first place in La Liga to Madrid and failed to defend their title in the Champions League, but also seen the team’s most accomplished coach, Josep “Pep” Guardiola, resign his position.
Since Barcelona lost to Madrid in their most recent La Liga match-up, then fell to Chelsea in the Champions League, there has been lots of speculation – some of it close to gloating – regarding the possibility that Barca’s extraordinary run of successes has ended because teams have figured them out. I happily acknowledge my bias in favor of the team that has played the beautiful game most beautifully for the past several seasons, but I don’t think anybody who has watched those two games would come to the conclusion that Barcelona is in decline. They played well, except for failing to finish some excellent chances. If it would surprise others to see Barcelona finish at the top of La Liga next year, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Nor will I be shocked if they finish the current season by winning the Copa del Rey a little later this month, which would put a fine and fitting period on Sr. Guardiola’s outstanding run at Camp Nou.