Messi's individual and collective skills were on full display during the round of 16 in the 2011 Champions League competition, in which Barcelona faced Arsenal. With the historic four-goal performance that had knocked out the Gunners in '10 still fresh in everyone's mind, Arsenal clamped down on Barça's star during the first leg on Feb. 16. But if he was heavily marked, then a teammate would be open, and Messi found a streaking David Villa for a precious away goal. The Blaugrana went home down 2--1 and needing to score at the Camp Nou to advance, so in the second leg on March 8, Messi proved yet again that he could make the difference as a poacher, too. Near halftime Andrés Iniesta fed Messi as he ran into the Gunners' box, yet Messi's first touch betrayed him, popping the ball to his waist just as the rushing goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, was about to smother him. Messi reacted so quickly that it was easy to mistake his second touch for a mishit; in reality it was a delightful flick of his left foot that lifted the ball over the keeper's outstretched body so that Messi could volley it into the empty net. It was a magical yet practical finish: A direct shot would have been blocked by the keeper. "You can pull off some of these plays from time to time when you're messing around," said Donovan, "but [Messi] pulls them off in Champions League games ... and he does it comfortably."
With that same ease Messi took on a new role on the field two years ago, precisely when he began his absolute reign as the world's best player. Before, as a right winger, he had certainly wreaked havoc—in 2007 against Getafe he scored the frame-by-frame replica of Maradona's Goal of the Century, and against Real Madrid he had a hat trick—but there were three problems: As a winger he was marked by the left fullback and squeezed by the touchline; he connected regularly only with his target man and right back Dani Alves; and, worst of all, the ball did not reach him nearly enough.
So the Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, did the unexpected: He lined up Messi as a center forward in the biggest game of the Argentine's career—the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United. By being in the center of the pitch in United's half of the field, Messi developed a more fluid connection with Xavi and Iniesta; and instead of doing only one-twos with Alves, he received the Brazilian's curved cross, sealing Barcelona's third European title with a score worthy of his new position: a header cleverly angled to the far post, past goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, that Messi considers the most important goal of his career. "As a center forward he has a greater chance of being in contact with the ball," says Argentine World Cup hero Mario Alberto Kempes, the Golden Boot in 1978. "But Messi won't play as a static number nine—he drops back, runs through the wings. He has options to choose from."
Kempes, who now covers the Argentine national team as a journalist, believes that the Albiceleste is a work in progress under new coach Sergio Batista, but that Messi is growing more and more comfortable with the new regime after a frustrating 2010 World Cup under the erratic Maradona. "Messi really wants to prove himself in the Argentine jersey," Kempes says. Batista is building his team around Messi—meaning no Carlos Tévez, Sergio Agüero or Juan Román Riquelme, players who might divert the ball or leadership from the true king. As was evident against the U.S. in March, Batista also wants Argentina to mirror Barcelona's style of play, with Messi reprising his role as withdrawn center forward.
With that scheme Batista has his eyes set on this summer's Copa América (page 58), which Argentina hosts and, after an 18-year title drought, is under intense pressure to win. But the real objective, for both Messi and two-time world champion Argentina, is further down the line: the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In Messi's two previous World Cups, one Argentine coach (José Pekerman) inexplicably left him on the bench in the quarterfinal against Germany, while the other (Maradona) failed to surround him with a solid team. Ironically, it will be in Pelé's home country that Messi will have his third chance to lift his first World Cup and earn his rightful place alongside O Rei and Maradona as the best in history.
"Genius," wrote David Foster Wallace, "is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious." Rexach says that the next generation of players in Barcelona is trying to emulate Messi, just as millions of kids are doing in sandlots all over the world. Perhaps an even better testament to Messi's popularity is the fact that within seven hours of going live, his Facebook page already had seven million "likes." (That's 30% of Bieber's following, but Messi achieved it in hours, not years.) You can also do this little experiment: Put on a Messi Barcelona jersey and hit the streets of, say, Manhattan, where Messi himself, without his uniform, went almost unrecognized. You'll be surprised at the number of people who give you a thumbs-up or honk their horns in approval.
All of them—aspiring players, social-media users, average folks on the street—know that we can't predict when (if ever) the next one of his kind will come along. So make a point of watching every Messi game—in La Liga, the Champions League, Copa América, the World Cup, even friendlies. You'll be telling your grandkids about him.