Watching Messi — a field guide

“What Messi does seems routine but it’s really not.”
Luis Enrique

Those words, uttered by Messi’s coach, Luis Enrique, are worth repeating and remembering. They’re a caution and an admonition. Football is sport, not science. Football the way it is played by Messi can verge on the divine.

Messi, like all the other Barça players, trains. Training allows a player to work and work at something until an action becomes rote, in the hope that at those moments, reflex takes over. On the practice court, a player can perfect a topspin backhand up the line, hitting thousands of them so that the shot is reflex. In a Grand Slam final, with a glowering opponent at the net, what happens then? What separates the greats from the goods, and the goods from the merely okays is that the greats make excellence repeatable. They make magic so often that it becomes routine. In training, a striker can score a goal like Messi did when he turned Boateng into a pylon, then smoked the best keeper in the game. In training. Not in a Champions League semifinal. These moments are magic because they are extraordinary. You can’t train for that stuff. A purer example of repeatable genius is Andres Iniesta.

At the Argentina Copa America match in Chicago, every time Messi touched the ball, phones rose into the air as everybody crammed into Soldier Field anticipated magic. He scored one goal. Then another. Finally, a third. Only one of the goals was a “Messi” goal, a tally that marks his status as human highlight reel. The rest of them were goals that — well — any old player could score. But even those goals are elevated because of the man who scored them, as tap-ins generate esctatic emanations because Messi scored it. Not only does he make greatness (almost) repeatable. He elevates the ordinary by virtue of his presence. But he also creates outsized expectations, even from folks who should know better.

“But Messi changes every game, he stops time. He’s the only player who could score a hat trick in every game if he wanted to.”
Quique Sanchez Flores

We can forgive Sanchez Flores’ poetic license, because Messi does want to score a hat trick in every match. But he can’t, particularly in the matches that he most wants to. The Sanchez Flores quote is the danger of Messi and how the world deals with him. Messi doesn’t get compared to Michael Jordan a lot except from this keyboard, but he should. People compare him to Cristiano Ronaldo but that measuring stick isn’t accurate because it’s temporal and immediate. The only analog that Messi has is in the sands of time via a sport he knows, from an era unrelated to his. Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose sent Messi a jersey that the Argentine wore a lot, creating a link to the team that was elevated by the only athlete most of us have witnessed who is comparable to Messi in the way that he makes the exceptional seem routine.

We gasp when Messi runs at five defenders and fails, because he has beaten five defenders before. On more than one occasion. Back in the day, we gasped as Michael Jordan took an opponent’s manhood by pulling off some amamzing physical feat. In a moment known as The Shot, in a playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jordan got the ball, like everyone knew he would. Craig Ehlo defended him, leaping to upset Jordan’s shot. Ehlo jumped, and landed. Jordan was still in the air. He stuck the jumper. Bulls win. That isn’t normal. Messi and Jordan perform the absurd so often that there is danger in how the world approaches them. Greatness should never be an expectation, should never make us forget how rare it is. Many of us are very lucky in that we have had the opportunity to watch, live and in person, players of whom history will speak of in reverent tones, watching grainy highlight reels and wondering if anyone will ever again be that good at anything.

Messi supporters expect him to always be able to single-handedly turn a match, an expectation that morphs into rage when Messi reveals himself to be, sometimes — more often than not, mortal. When he can’t carry a team all by himself, the baying mob turns on accessible targets from Tata Martino to Gonzalo Higuain, entities who let down a player too good to be let down, who his supporters always think deserves the absolute best. And he does. But the danger of hero worship comes when our heroes aren’t, leaving us bereft and psychologically homeless.

— “He will win the match all by himself.”
— “Damn them for not giving him the tools he needs to win matches!”

It’s the yin and yang of a player for whom the spectacular has beocme an expectation, because the other thing that transcendence does is build outsized expectations. It’s weird to be accused of hating Messi. But it’s routine for me, something that gets absorbed, that it isn’t even worth the bother to explain. Because it’s easy to understand where such thinking comes from. The same qualities that spark rage when teammates fail Messi spark ire when someone evaluates Messi in a way that doesn’t jibe with expectation. If you point out that Messi’s recent touches during a match all resulted in loss of the ball, the responses will usually be something like, “Why do you hate him? The next time he touches the ball could be a goal! What’s wrong with you?”

The answer to that last question is quite elegantly addressed by the two coaches who led their teams in the Catalan derby. It’s a question of what’s wrong with the expectation. What we want from life is for things to bring us joy, to elevate us. We want to believe that Messi can score a hat trick every match if he wants to, because that’s what greatness does. It builds massive demands carried in our need for joy. And this is true even as we know that Messi can’t be great all the time. It’s why we erupt into spasms of glee when he does something beyond his own lofty standard. The two goals he created with solo runs against Espanyol were remarkable bits of athletic skill. They were, simply put, absurd.

If reality matched our expectation, we’d just shrug when he did yet another slaloming dribble, mark the goal and return to our match watching routine. People wouldn’t whip our their phones to capture something that we know is going to come. But dealing with Messi is a challenge. We always expect greatness from him, even if we shouldn’t. We should expect him to be what he is, which is an exceptional player who will often morph into a human cheat code, but who will be erratic. Luis Enrique, with his quote, reminds us to not assume exactly what Sanchez Flores does with his. Extraordinary things are to be cherished. Do we take Messi for granted? Hell no. But we should be careful with our expectations. Greatness is elusive, and comes when it will. Greatness isn’t a utility, like the switch you flip when you want light. It’s that comet, streaking across the night sky — an exquisite rarity you were lucky enough to get a glimpse of.

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