Do you remember Lionel Messi? Little guy, used to have a bowl cut? Started off by dribbling past everyone, but getting fouled all the time? Then he turned into the best passer in the world and also the best goal scorer? Finally cut his hair, but bleached it blonde? Rinsed the peroxide out and grew a beard? Seemed like he'd washed out that crisis, only to then tattoo his entire leg in black ink? Won the Ballon d'Or seven times? Ever heard of him?
He used to be everywhere, always. To watch soccer for the past 15 years was to try to pay attention to someone else on a given Saturday or Sunday, only for Messi to remind you that you were wasting your time not watching him.
Enjoying that Bayern Munich match? Hey, I just dribbled through Getafe's entire team. Oh man, this Zlatan guy is pretty interesting, huh? You know what's interesting? I just scored 50 goals and tossed in 16 assists in 38 La Liga games. Whoa, is Manchester City ever going to lose a match? Uh, my team just took 20 shots in a game and I attempted or assisted every single one. All right, seems like it's time to enjoy some of this Erling Haaland business? I'm 32 years old and I'm going to put up a 20-20 goals and assists season just for fun.
Every month during the season, European Sports Media -- a group of 14 European magazines -- votes on a Team of the Month. There's an archive of their selections going all the way back to the 1995-96 season. Since then, Messi has been voted in 84 times. No other player has made more than 51 appearances (Cristiano Ronaldo). Put another way, over his 16 seasons with Barcelona, Messi was voted into the Team of the Month an absurd 60% of the time. For more than a decade-and-a-half, Messi's average month was better than everyone else's best. He's the only player who was more likely to be in the team than not.
Then, all of a sudden, he disappeared.
There's just ... nothing. No breathtaking runs, no physics-defying free kicks, and barely any goals. Twenty-one matches into his first Ligue 1 season for Paris Saint-Germain, the greatest soccer player of all time has scored one time. In the 2012-13 season, he'd already scored 33 goals at this point in the domestic campaign. In his last three years at Barcelona, he'd averaged 16 goals through the first 21 matches of the La Liga season. Let me repeat: Lionel Messi has scored ONE GOAL in Ligue 1 this season. Unsurprisingly, given that -- and shockingly, given everything else -- he's yet to be selected to the ESM Team of the Month this season. He's been so absent from the everyday rhythms of European soccer that some people actually got mad when he won the Ballon d'Or.
It sure feels like the beginning of the end -- or maybe it's the start of something new.