Lionel Messi, the maestro from Rosario

Lionel Messi, the maestro from Rosario

As he is wont to do, Lionel Messi found himself a pocket of space, meeting Jordi Alba’s pass at the edge of the penalty box.

Without the aid of a settling touch, Messi slotted a finish that at once managed to be just outside the outstretched right hand, and just inside the upright right post, of Madrid’s goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

To celebrate, Messi ran towards the corner, which is customary, and took his jersey off, which is not — at least for him.

After being mauled by his teammates, Messi held up the back of his shirt to the crowd, his instructions to the Madrid faithful clear: say my name, and don’t you forget it.

Lionel Messi celebrates his 500th goal against Real Madrid.
Lionel Messi celebrates his 500th goal against Real Madrid.

The moment evoked the grandness of ancient Rome’s colosseum—Barcelona’s greatest ever player, all 5’7” of him, asserting his dominance over 80,000 hostile Madridistas.

But what was thrilling about the moment was the latent threat. Football, remember, is a sport that has spawned an entire cottage industry of hooligan and fan violence.

To that baseline one can add that this was game between Madrid and Barca, a rivalry testy enough for a book on it to be titled ‘Fear and Loathing’.

When Luis Figo returned to the Camp Nou as a Madrid player in 2002, he was famously greeted with a pig’s head, not to mention deafening whistles and debris when taking corners.

So as Messi stood face to face with a baying crowd, having stomped on the collective heart of Madrid and their fans with a 92nd-minute winner, engaging in what can plainly be called provocative behavior, I feared the worst.

He’s going to inspire a riot, I thought, or at least get hit by a projectile.

But my fears were misplaced.

Doubtless, there was a middle finger or two shown.

But rather than responding to Messi angrily, the Madrid crowd evinced a combination of resignation and respect. They seemed to be saying: he’s too good and he did us again, el hijo de puta.

By now, the biographical details of the reclusive Lionel Andres Messi are known even to casual fans.

Born in Rosario, Argentina, left his home country for Spain because no local club would pay for his growth hormones, signed for Barcelona on a napkin, best player in history, yada yada yada.

It is hard to believe he has played professional football for over a decade.

Five hundred Barcelona goals later, I still have to sometimes remind myself that yes, this guy is real, and yes, we are actually this lucky.

All good things must come to an end, and when my mind drifts to the inevitable, I can only half-successfully expunge the reminders of his mortality and finiteness.

Messi broke into the Argentina and Barcelona setups as the typical pibe, a word that literally translates to “kid” but in the Argentine context means much more.

In 1928, the editor of the sports monthly El Grafico proposed building a statue to honor the inventor of dribbling.

The statue would depict an Argentine, “a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh.”

Moreover, “it must seem as if he is dribbling with a rag ball. That is important: the ball cannot be any other.”

As Jonathan Wilson notes in his book on Argentine football, Angels with Dirty Faces, the description of the statue perfectly captures the essence of Argentine soccer.

The pibe is assuredly associated with dribbling, but also the idea of not growing up, evading adult responsibilities, and maintaining spontaneity.

The archetypical pibe was, of course, Diego Maradona, the man who never outgrew boyish impulses.

While Messi’s dribbling still conjures images of the mischievous child, his demeanor today is more padre than pibe.

Certainly, there is sound reason for him to have graduated to the role of the fatherly figure.

No longer the young pup shepherded by Ronaldinho, nor the budding genius protected by veterans like Puyol or Xavi, Messi is now 30; the famous “1987” generation at the Barcelona youth academy La Masia — Messi, Gerard Pique, and Cesc Fabregas all played on the same youth team — has come of age.

Suddenly, Messi is the team’s elder statesman.

Thanks to Andres Iniesta’s inability to keep up with the rigours of two games a week, modern football’s standard schedule, Messi now wears the captain’s armband more often than not.

As if to stamp his newfound status as locker-room dad, Messi has grown a bushy beard and jettisoned the mop he sported in his teens and early twenties.

Though he is getting older, it is hard to make the case that Messi has peaked.

The gap between him and every other player remains gargantuan and, in some senses, is actually growing.

Some unhelpfully juxtapose Messi with Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid’s superstar and formerly of Manchester United, but in truth, the two are not comparable.

Ronaldo is an excellent goal-scoring forward whose exploits place him favorably to contemporaries such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, or David Villa.

But relative to Messi, he is a fairly one-dimensional player: an excellent finisher in and around the box, but unable to help build and create attacks from deep or, more generally, impose himself on a game, especially against organised sides.

Even on the dimension of goal scoring — Ronaldo’s greatest strength — Messi is comfortably better.

Tellingly, unlike Ronaldo, one could redact every one of Messi’s goals and still leave a legendary player, probably the best since Maradona.

Messi’s link-up play, passing over short and long distances, ability to destabilize defenses with dribbles and runs, close control when surrounded by defenders, intelligence and playmaking, and extraordinary knack for creating space with feints and leans mean that his goals, valuable and beautiful and consequential as they are, obscure as much as they reveal about his excellence.

That the relative merits of Ronaldo and Messi are even debated owes more to corporate football’s need for a rivalry, no matter how tenuous, and Ronaldo’s affiliations with the English Premier League and Real Madrid, the headquarters of opinion-making in football.

For knowledgeable observers, however, away from YouTube comment sections, social media, and the corrupt halls of FIFA, there is no comparison: Messi is easily a better player, possibly the best ever and certainly amongst the top two or three.

Indeed, a British blogger was once driven to question whether Messi was better at football than anyone else had ever been at anything else.

In this view, Messi’s true competitors are Mozart, Napoleon, and Da Vinci; bringing up Ronaldo in such conversations seems unfair to all involved.

Though Messi is almost guaranteed to do something hitherto-unseen in every single game, there are certain elements of his play that are joyous precisely because they are familiar.

You know what he’s going to do, but you don’t know how exactly he’s going to do it, and that’s the fun.

The first of these choose-your-adventure moments occurs when Messi manages to face up to his defender one-on-one.

Usually, Messi has to work hard to achieve such an advantageous position, either involving a turn having received the ball with his back to goal, or otherwise coming to a deadweight stop having received the ball on the run.

Either way, Messi stops and stares at his marker, waiting. As a spectator, clocks seem to momentarily stop ticking.

Against almost all players, defenders would attempt a tackle, but sticking a boot in against Messi is dangerous because, simply, his feet and brain work faster than anyone else’s.

When defenders lunge, as Nani did at Wembley, Messi just waltzes past.

Let him take the initiative, as Casemiro did during the last Clasico, and you yield all control: Messi will lead you on like a terrible flirt, feinting right, keeping the ball on his toes, dropping his shoulder, and proceeding on his merry way, usually before being scythed down or having his shirt tugged.

Occasionally, and often enough that defenders do not confuse him with Arjen Robben, Messi will actually go right, just to keep them honest; such was the genesis of his otherworldly goal in the 2015 Copa del Rey final.

Then there’s the through balls. Darting in from the right wing on his left foot, with two or three hapless midfielders and defenders chasing him, Messi tends to enjoy a panoramic view of the pitch from such a vantage point.

But seeing the pitch and seeing the pass are two different things.

The Messi staple is a loopy, cross-field ball that finds a haring Neymar or Jordi Alba on the left wing, Henry and Ronaldinho before them.

The ones I enjoy the most, however, are the through balls between the opposition centre-backs, meeting a diagonal run, for these passes seem to most loudly mock the laws of geometry.

Forget hot knives and butter, such passes are more akin to samurai swords through flesh.

Remember his (second) assist to David Villa in the 5-0 Clasico? Or to Andres Iniesta against the same opponent the following year?

And then there’s the one-twos.

The one-two is a footballing delight, but with Messi involved, the sheer speed of such exchanges, and the tiny spaces within which they take place, are especially fun.

The classic version is Messi using a teammate, usually a forward, as a wall: he dribbles towards the goal, knocks a pass to Samuel Eto’o or Luis Suarez, who ping it back into Messi’s path before he unleashes a shot.

Sometimes, Messi and a teammate will execute a particularly elaborate version of the one-two, as when Pedro and him combined for a pair of one-twos in the Villareal box.

The Platonic ideal of a one-two, meanwhile, could only be reached between Messi and his brother-from-another-mother from across the Rio de la Plata, Dani Alves.

Until his departure for Juventus last summer, Alves enjoyed a telepathic and uncanny connection with Messi.

The loud, unabashed, and unapologetic yin to Messi’s reserved yang, one memorable exchange saw three one-twos between the two, the ball starting at the halfway line and ending in Real Sociedad’s goal.

Messi’s play may be essentially flawless but his CV is not. Most notably, he has never won a senior title with the Argentina national side.

During his career, Argentina’s closest misses were World Cups in 2006 and 2014 and Copa Americas in 2007 and 2015, reaching the final in three of these tournaments (2007, 2014, and 2015), and probably being the best team in the fourth (2006).

In each of those tournaments, they were eliminated by more organized, coherent sides with tactical discipline and sound game-plans: Germany in 2006 and 2014 (who also knocked out Argentina in the disastrous 2010 World Cup), Brazil in 2007, and Chile in 2015.

The lack of national success despite playing for a major country has haunted Messi and has led some to suggest that without such silverware, his claims to greatness are incomplete.

Going further, a popular meme holds that Messi is not especially popular among his compatriots, mainly due to his performances in Barca colors outpacing those in the albiceleste.

Such an idea is seductive—the boy who left home and won everything except the affectations of his countrymen—but easily overstated, especially by foreign journalists.

Messi is an enormously popular figure in Argentina, and underperforming “stars” such as Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, draw considerably more ire for Argentina’s failures.

More than his teammates’ overrated abilities, the larger context of Argentine football, including the shambolic administration, immersed in crisis to the extent that FIFA has taken over the Argentine federation; the coaching carousel that has seen seven managers since Messi’s debut with an eighth on the way; and the sheer financial bankruptcy that resulted in Tata Martino, the former manager, being unpaid for six months and Messi himself paying the wages of the team’s security staff, mean that few rational observers expect Messi to single-handedly carry Argentina to global success.

Certainly, there remain suspicions among some Argentina fans about Messi’s “true” allegiances, given his success at club level and that he never played first-team football for one of Argentina’s major clubs.

Most importantly, the peculiar dynamics of the Maradona-Messi relationship render the latter unlovable for a certain type of Argentine: accepting Messi’s genius would necessarily imply a demotion for Maradona in the pantheon of all-time greats.

But by and large, Messi has assuaged doubts about his national team performances.

The reaction after he temporarily retired in 2016, to nationally choreographed cries of “Messi, no te vayas” [Messi, don’t go] says as much.

While he is unlikely to lead Argentina to World Cup glory as so many crave, I consider myself fortunate just to watch him try.

And if he miraculously succeeds? Well, imagine the celebrations then.

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