By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — Superman is alive, well and playing for Barcelona.
How else to describe Lionel Messi?
All the usual superlatives are no longer enough.
Like swimming's Michael Phelps (eight golds at one Olympics), cycling's Lance Armstrong (seven consecutive Tour de France victories) or hockey's Wayne Gretzky (894 goals, 1,963 assists in 1,487 games), Barcelona's new career scoring leader is setting sports records that will last an awful long time, perhaps forever.
The mark Messi shattered on Tuesday night stood for 57 years. It was set by Cesar Rodriguez, who is remembered for his sixth sense of anticipation and ability to score from corners. Cesar notched his 232 Barcelona goals over 13 seasons, from 1942-1955.
Barcelona legends like Samuel Eto'o, Africa's most decorated player, or Rivaldo, Brazil's 1999 world player of the year, or Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarian star of Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team" in the 1990s, also scored by the bucket load for the 113-year-old Catalan institution that calls itself "More than a club."
But none of them came within spitting distance of even threatening Rodriguez's milestone.
Messi dismantled it in just seven years, goal by goal, game by game.
His record is now 234 goals and counting. Messi's mark, if it isn't already, will be unattainable by other mere mortals by time he finishes his career.
Messi is still only 24. Since his first Barcelona goal in 2005, he averages more than 30 per season for the club that nurtured him and earned his loyalty by helping to fund the hormone treatment he needed to correct a childhood growth deficiency and grow tall enough to become the larger-than-life football phenomenon he is today.
At this rate, Messi could surpass 400 Barca goals if he plays for just five more years. Cloud cuckoo land for others. But Messi makes the impossible seem almost banal.
"If he continues like this in the coming years, he will score so many goals that he will never be surpassed," said Pep Guardiola, Barca's coach who long ago ran out of new ways to praise his player.
To add to the otherworldly feel of Messi's latest feat, goal No. 233 that eclipsed Cesar was almost a carbon copy of his first league strike on May 1, 2005, against Albacete.
That day, coming on as a late substitute for Eto'o, Messi waited for Ronaldinho's delicate pass over the defense to bounce once in front of him and then conjured a left-footed lob over goalkeeper Raul Valbuena that put the 17-year-old into Barca's record books as its youngest scorer of a league goal.
On Tuesday evening, Messi again used his left foot to control Dani Alves' pass and to chip over Granada keeper Julio Cesar.
That both record-setting goals, scored seven years apart, resembled each other so closely felt like the wheel turning full circle. The first announced the arrival of a prodigy, the second was further confirmation that Messi has become the best player of his era, perhaps of all time.
Guardiola likened Messi to Michael Jordan because "Jordan dominated his sport and Messi dominates this one." But there are other similarities, too. Like Jordan, Messi doesn't only score, he scores when it really counts.
Jordan had his array of buzzer-beating, game-winning shots for the Chicago Bulls, like the one that sank the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA finals.
Messi's highlight reel includes unforgettable goals like his header that floored Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final, with a leap worthy of the jumps that earned Jordan the title "His Airness."
But there are also countless less glamorous efforts that were vital, too, because they kept Barcelona on top — like record-setting goal No. 233 on Tuesday. It pinned back Granada after it had evened the score at 2-2. From that Messi strike for 3-2, Barca went on to win 5-3.
"That's why he is the best, because in the difficult moments, in the difficult problems, the rest of the 10 teammates, they know he's there," Guardiola said. "In that moment, he believes in himself and he resolves our little problems."
If there is an annoying Clark Kent trait to Messi, and you have to look very hard to find one, it could be that he seems so ... nice, a limp word deliberately chosen here because it is so bland.
Messi doesn't have that angry, sometimes nasty streak that drove Armstrong to crush all comers on France's roads. He doesn't appear to suffer the frailties that led that other Argentine soccer genius, Diego Maradona, to dice with cocaine and death.
With 234 goals and tens of millions of dollars to his name, Messi still appears humble and simple, as though he is the lucky and privileged one to be playing for Barcelona, and not the other way round.
Frankly, it's almost unsettling to be faced with someone about whom nothing bad can be said.
A bird? A plane?
No, it's Messi.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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