Part of the net now hangs on a wall in Piqué's home, a tangible reminder of the day Barcelona reached a new pinnacle. It wasn't just that it had outclassed England's most storied team, or that it claimed another coveted winner's trophy, one of a remarkable 14 in 20 competitions over the past five seasons. (No other team has come close.) The spectacle also hailed the triumph of an idea: that beautiful, intricate soccer can be winning soccer, and that it can be homegrown. Two years ago all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d'Or, given to the world's best player, had developed as children at FC Barcelona: Messi, the winner, and midfield string pullers Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. It was as though three people from the same middle school had won Nobel Prizes.
Imagine that nearly all the members of the New York Yankees lineup had played baseball in the organization since their early to mid-teens, and you'd have Barcelona, which meets Real Madrid this Sunday in the latest edition of the sports world's fiercest rivalry. "I've played with some of my teammates since I was 12," says Fàbregas, now 25. "When Messi first came, we were both 13. He was so tiny! We're all more like friends, and we fight for each other. I could go with this team to the end of the world."
Experts have scrambled to put Barcelona's feats in historical context. "In my time as manager, it's the best team we have played," said Sir Alex Ferguson, Man United's coach since 1986, after the 2011 defeat. Where does the Barcelona of the past five years rank among the top soccer teams of all time? "The short answer is by far the best," says Ray Hudson, the poet laureate of Spanish soccer for beIN Sport television, launching into a six-minute ode that is anything but a short answer. "I can't imagine anybody going beyond this purest example of football. They have spoiled the game for me. When I try to watch other teams and other leagues, it's like I've just read a wonderful novel and gone back to nursery-rhyme books."
As Barcelona aims for its third Champions League title in five seasons, its popularity, like Piqué's clever net removal, transcends soccer itself. In 1992 the Dream Team swaggered into the Barcelona Olympics with the signature basketball players of a generation—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird—and changed the face of global sports. Now, 20 years later, it's as though Barcelona is returning the favor, mesmerizing hard-core fútbol followers while winning new hearts and minds for the Beautiful Game. When SI conducted a Facebook survey asking users to name their top sports moment of 2011, Messi's Champions League final performance received more first-place votes from the U.S. than the champions of the NFL, NBA and NHL. In New York City's Times Square, chances are you'll see as many Messi Barcelona jerseys on people as the shirt of any other athlete. Barça's Facebook page has 35 million subscribers, more than any other sports team.
There have been other international sports dynasties—Jordan's six-time NBA champion Bulls, for example—but at least one authority on soccer and the NBA thinks Barcelona has left those teams behind. "To win in Spain and around Europe and the world club competition the way they have, it's unprecedented in the modern era," says two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, an ardent culé (Barça fan) who dragged his girlfriend to watch Messi's Marauders on a pub TV during a Jamaican vacation last year. "And to do it with the style and beauty they've done it with, you've got to give them extra credit. Not that the Bulls weren't fun to watch, but this is something else."
In an era in which supporting the Yankees and the Heat feels like cheering for Microsoft, you can root for FC Barcelona and feel good about it on every level. Barça is the paragon of a championship sports team: exciting, homegrown, tied to the community, with an inspiring social mission and the world's most magical player. What's more, Barcelona players are the core of Spain's national team, the first to hold the World Cup and two European crowns at the same time.
History matters. Barcelona is already pulling away in the Spanish league, and it's favored to win the Champions League. If the club can raise both trophies again, there will be no doubt: Barça is the team of our time.
Lionel Andrés Messi has inspired millions of words in a babel of tongues, but perhaps the best way to summarize him is this: When he is in the game, even hard-core fans might witness something they have never seen before. Take Barcelona's 2--0 victory over Granada on Sept. 22. Late in the game Messi dribbled from the left side into the penalty area, where two defenders sandwiched him, briefly dislodging the ball. In a split second, at full speed, Messi flicked his foot behind him to tap the ball, ran around the defender to meet the ball again and pinballed a low cross off Granada defender Borja Gómez and into the net.
The stat sheet would list it as an own goal, but the rest of us could only watch in disbelief. A backheel to himself. In the box. Even Hudson, calling the game on TV, was at a loss for words: "Just another out-of-body experience for Lionel Messi." Indeed, it's hard not to get spiritual watching Messi. Just as the Bulls' triangle offense needed a sporting genius for it to enter the pantheon, so too does Barcelona's triangle offense. "It's a special group of players with obvious talent," says Fàbregas, "and the best player that there has ever been."
The résumé Messi has already produced at age 25 only begins to make the case: a world-record 73 goals in all club competitions last season, including an unprecedented five in one Champions League game; 252 goals and 89 assists in 331 Barça appearances at week's end; three Champions League and five Spanish league titles; and three straight world player of the year awards, also unprecedented. Already he has joined Pelé and Diego Maradona in the debate over the greatest player of all time, and while detractors note that Messi has yet to win a World Cup (Pelé won three, Maradona one), it's also true that the sport has changed since the days of those older stars. The Champions League is now viewed in many precincts as a superior competition to the World Cup because it features more top players, a bigger sample size and a higher level of play that international soccer's marquee quadrennial event. Pelé never played club soccer in Europe, while Maradona never won the top European club crown, which was decided by a smaller-scale tournament during his career. If Messi keeps winning the most important club trophies and putting up off-the-charts numbers with Barça, he may not need the World Cup to be called the greatest.