Messi as sweet a force of na­ture as ever

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker:

“Art be­longs to ev­ery­body and no­body. Art be­longs to all time and no time. Art be­longs to those who cre­ate it and those who savour it . . . art is the whis­per of his­tory, heard above the noise of time.”

– Ju­lian Barnes, The Noise Of Time

Lionel Messi forces you into this. He makes you fall, makes you slip into lyri­cal re­flec­tion to ex­press ap­pre­ci­a­tion, so that a pas­sage in a novel about a fear­ful Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union con­nects to an Ar­gen­tine foot­baller on a Tues­day night in Barcelona.

This is not a com­plaint. It is one piece of the awe­some joy of Lionel Messi. He makes the peo­ple happy.

Mod­ern foot­ball is one long racket, a con­stant noise, usu­ally deafen­ing, of­ten dis­cor­dant. Messi is the whis­per of his­tory heard above it.

We have said it be­fore, many times, that Messi is a mem­ber of that ex­clu­sive group of seven or eight play­ers who, even most of an ar­gu­men­ta­tive planet agree, are the best of all time: Puskas, Di Ste­fano, Pele, Best, Cruyff, Maradona and Zi­dane.

There are plenty of other con­tenders - Franz Beck­en­bauer can hardly be dis­missed - and then there are the pre-TV he­roes, the Pathe news men. Un­ques­tion­ably there was se­ri­ous tal­ent then, it’s just that you had to be there to see Hughie Gal­lacher to fully com­pre­hend his abil­ity and sig­nif­i­cance.

But Messi is there. How­ever good Alex James or Peter Do­herty were, it is hard to con­ceive of them be­ing bet­ter than Messi.

Priv­i­lege

Each tal­ent stands in its own time, in its own cir­cum­stance. Messi is the tal­ent of this time and our priv­i­lege is that he is here and now and that tele­vi­sion means a global au­di­ence can fall for ev­ery hip­sway and swoon at ev­ery clean de­tail he ac­cu­mu­lates in the course of 90 min­utes.

It is a kind of help­less hap­pi­ness we feel in re­sponse to yet another chord of Messi mu­sic. Per­haps even Gian­luigi Buf­fon will come to ex­pe­ri­ence the same when he looks back at the sec­ond goal Messi scored against Ju­ven­tus on Tues­day night.

Messi has scored more elab­o­rate goals on more dra­matic oc­ca­sions, but that is what made Tues­day so spe­cial. If a game between Barcelona and Ju­ven­tus can ever be de­scribed as rou­tine, this was it, the first match of a Cham­pi­ons League group both will ex­pect to progress from.

Messi turned it into a mo­ment. His sec­ond goal – Barca’s third – was not one of his sweep­ing drib­bles. It was a 10-yard shuf­fle past a cou­ple of de­fend­ers fol­lowed by an ar­row into the bot­tom right cor­ner of the goal while he looked at the bot­tom left. Hence Buf­fon be­gan div­ing the wrong way.

Yet Buf­fon, even mid­way through his dive, knew that he had been out­done. His hope­ful dive be­came a know­ing col­lapse.

Grand­est stage

It was the type of bril­liance some­times heard from play­ers on their way back from train­ing, a piece of skill that made all pause at its ac­com­plish­ment. Messi, how­ever, has pro­duced this re­lent­lessly on the grand­est stages over a decade.

It is seven years since he scored four against Arse­nal, when there was an au­di­ble gasp from the Nou Camp at the au­dac­ity of Messi’s third, a run­ning chip over Manuel Al­mu­nia. His first goal had al­most bro­ken the net. It was one of those nights when Messi was play­ing ev­ery in­stru­ment.

He was 23 then, 30 now. It is an age that in­vites cir­cum­spec­tion in foot­ball, yet if we were told Messi is 27 it would hardly be dis­puted. His de­meanour re­mains coltish.

Even if he had just re­turned from another un­der­whelm­ing spell with Ar­gentina, Messi did not carry dis­ap­point­ment with him. His flow was un­in­ter­rupted and he has seven goals in his last three Barca ap­pear­ances.

But it feels wrong to re­duce Messi to stats, it’s like au­dit­ing mu­sic. There is noth­ing wrong with count­ing, and there are times when an au­dit can bring fresh em­pha­sis to a thought al­ready form­ing, times when it can be re­veal­ing.

But too much of foot­ball is re­duced to bare data. We are told how far a player runs as if that is the be-all and end-all. We are not told why he runs, why he doesn’t run. Was the run a good one? Or would he, like Messi so of­ten, have been bet­ter stand­ing still to cre­ate space while others run?

Messi is a sweet force of na­ture, a re­but­tal to data, not its con­fir­ma­tion. Sta­tis­tics with­out con­text are sta­tis­tics with­out con­text, and he is above the noise. His ‘win ra­tio’ might be this or it might be that, but it is not the point. He may not have won the World Cup but that might not be his re­spon­si­bil­ity en­tirely, you know.

Messi has done enough at Barcelona any­way. Messi is art, his­tory. He takes his au­di­ence to another place, where we watch him and we smile and we feel won­drous.

Messi is art, his­tory. He takes his au­di­ence to another place, where we watch him and we smile and we feel won­drous

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LLUIS GENELLUIS GENE/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Lionel Messi cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing against Ju­ven­tus at the Camp Nou. “His sec­ond goal – Barca’s third – was not one of his sweep­ing drib­bles. It was a 10-yard shuf­fle past a cou­ple of de­fend­ers fol­lowed by an ar­row into the bot­tom right cor­ner of the goal while he looked at the bot­tom left. It was the type of bril­liance some­times heard from play­ers on their way back from train­ing, a piece of skill that made all pause at its ac­com­plish­ment.”

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