‘Disappointing” is entirely the wrong word, but watching Lionel Messi play live forces the viewer into a reconsideration of what greatness should look like.
In a sport dominated by small people, he is usually the smallest on the field. He has a short-legged, weeble-wobble gait that makes him look like a man crossing the deck of a rolling boat. Most notably, he doesn’t work very hard.
When play moves into his own team’s half, Messi will generally stand at the midway point, out of range of cameras, doing absolutely nothing. He often doesn’t seem to be following play at all.
At the Brazil World Cup in 2014, the only players who routinely covered less distance during a game were the goalkeepers.
In an early contest between Messi’s Argentina and Bosnia, the defender marking him began jogging around a stock-still Messi in slow, tight circles, just for something to do. Up in the stands, it looked like an unambitious modern-dance routine.
But when the play shifts and he is presented with an opportunity to go forward, Messi does so more suddenly, more assuredly and more breathtakingly than any player in the history of the game.
In the 65th minute against Bosnia, the ball worked its way back to Messi in the centre of the park. Without pausing for consideration, he began to run at an indiscriminate mass of opponents. They did what everyone does when they see Messi coming at speed – panic.
He and a teammate worked a give-and-go to supply him with some room. When he encountered a wall of bodies at the perimeter of the penalty area, he sprinted parallel to it until he located an inch of space. Then he picked the corner with a seeing-eye shot. It was a strike of such gaudy ambition, even the Brazilians on hand cheered.
From the moment Messi took the ball, he did not hesitate. He ran as if the steps were marked out ahead of him. All he had to do was put his feet in the right places. The wide angle of a TV shot diminishes the speed at which he’s making these complex decisions. Were you to see it from close up, it would boggle your mind.
Given the stage and the stakes – Rio’s Maracana and a World Cup – some might consider it a notable moment. For Messi, it’s just one of many hundreds stretching back to childhood. A proper highlight reel would run the length of the Ring Cycle.
After the celebrations and the re-start, Messi returned to midfield for another nap.
He performed in that same stop-start way throughout the tournament – Argentina lost in the final and he was still named MVP.
If you have been lucky enough to see Messi in person, you will understand this – that all geniuses make hard things look simple, but only he can make them look foreordained. No one has ever done more with less. Largely because he has no need to.
On Monday, Messi was awarded the Ballon d’Or as FIFA’s 2015 world player of the year. It’s his fifth such title. No other player has won more than three.
Perhaps even more impressively, Messi has not finished lower than second in voting since 2007. Though it feels as if he’s been around forever, he’s still only 28 years old.
At some point during 2016, he will become the second modern player to score 500 goals for club and country. The other is his nemesis and near-equal, Cristiano Ronaldo.
(Ronaldo finished second in Monday’s race. Messi’s Barcelona teammate Neymar was third. Spain does not have the best overall league in the world – England still does – but it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity.)
Whenever Messi hits 500, the moment will be celebrated in Argentina and Barcelona, but in all likelihood it will be a minor news story in the rest of the world.
In keeping with Messi’s on-field style, no one gets too excited about Messi any more. No team athlete is so universally recognized as the best at what he/she does. There are contrarians on this point, but few of them can keep a straight face.
So many superlatives have been tossed his way, it seems profligate to waste any more. And so, most of the time, we don’t bother.
One suspects he’d be an even more admired player if his level wasn’t so consistently high, or didn’t play for the best club in the world. That way we’d have some dry spells to contrast against bursts of “Oh my God, he just did what?!” moments.
But it’s all up here. Up here so far that after a while you’ve begun to get a little bit bored by him. Any game he doesn’t score in is a disappointment. A single goal feels like an off day.
Every once in a while he’ll do something fully ridiculous – say, his slalom through the entire left side of Athletic Bilbao in last year’s Copa del Rey final – and you’ll think, “Not bad.” That’s because you’re judging Messi against Messi. You’re forgetting perhaps a dozen working pros would dare to try it, and only he could manage it.
Though the standard is unchanged, there is an incremental sense that Messi is slowing down. He went through still-unexplained bouts of on-field nausea in 2014. He missed two months this season with a knee injury – the first lengthy layoff of his career.
Argentina manager Gerardo Martino said this week Messi will probably not be named to the country’s team for the Rio Olympics. He wants him fully focussed on June’s Copa America and World Cup qualifying to follow in the fall.
Significantly, Martino made the public announcement before privately discussing it with his player. He must worry that Messi might talk him out of it. Evidently, the flesh and the spirit are still willing.
The real tension in whatever’s left of Messi’s time as the best player on Earth – surely, it can’t last more than four or five years? – isn’t piling on records. On an individual level, there’s nothing left for him to prove.
The key is sustaining our own capacity for awe where he is concerned. It’s already flagging.
The likely truth is that we will not fully appreciate what Messi is until after he’s gone. Only at that point will we have the proper comparison point for his talent: the absence of it.Report Typo/Error
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