I remember when I was a little kid, and I spent my days in daycare. There was this one polite lady who always told me to smile at people. “Even if you don’t know them, smile at them, and it’ll make them happy. You don’t need a reason, you don’t need to know them. Just smile.”
I never really understood what she meant. I always thought it was a useless exercise: no one paid attention anyway, and if they did, they were more likely to consider you weird. Everyone was busy going to wherever they were trying to go, everyone was busy dialing their phone and focusing on the bubble they’d built for themselves.
I didn’t get the point of it.
I did it anyway, I tried smiling at people, be it on the streets, on the hallways, wherever. No one ever said thank you. It was rare to be smiled back at. It was rare to be noticed. So I stopped, eventually. Now, I suppose I walk around in a bubble of my own.
When you smile, people think you’re happy, they think you’re on a good mood. And that lady used to tell me: “they’ll catch your mood, they’ll get happy too.” I realized that’s not always true. Not today anyway. Our society is all about competition. Our society is about being better, being more efficient than the person competing for the same job. Your value is measured in the size of your paycheck. And if you’re happy on top of that, well, eff you.
People don’t really catch your good mood, not always. They look at you and their eyes say “what are you so happy about?” as they continue to go through the motions of the day. “Eff him, annoying happy person, what right do you have to be happy, do you think you’re better than me?”
I was watching an old Barcelona match the other day. Messi scored a ridiculous goal. He took the ball near the midfield, he ran with it, he lent it to a team mate, got it back and flicked it into the net. So easy, so effortless, so stunning.
It wasn’t the goal that shocked me, not anymore: I was used to him making magic a routine. It was his non-celebration that felt odd and unusual. He didn’t erupt in glee, he didn’t run to the corner flag with a smile from ear to ear, he simply jogged to the closest team mate, gave him a lazy hug, then a high-five to another companion, and finally just walked back to the center circle.
No smile. No nothing. It felt uncanny. It felt like the moment of divinity we had just witnessed deserved more.
I suppose Messi got bored of smiling, too. There was a time when he’d flash a smile after a golazo, and make thousands and again thousands of people worldwide smile with him. There was a time when smiles spread, when that shy Argentinian sent our way from upwards inspired millions of grins all over the globe.
That was before the jealousy took over. That was before the competitive people only interested in results started asking what kind of right Messi had to be happy. What right did he have to be so good, and so happy? “Eff him, annoying happy person”.
Lies spread instead of smiles, the PR-machinery did everything it could to tear that smile down and stamp on it as it laid on the ground. No one ever said thank you. Instead, they asked for more. He’d score a brace, and they’d slash him for a missed penalty. He’d score a winning goal, and they’d talk more about the leading scorers than the league table his team was leading.
Maybe they rationalized to themselves: “If he’s that good, and that happy, let’s lift the bar so high that he can’t overcome it. If we can’t destroy the quality, let’s destroy the joy”.
That round object on a field of grass was the love of his life. If you look at the images of the young Messi, there’s nothing he loved more. He’d take on a defender, dribble past him, get fouled and kicked, and then get up to do it all over again. Countless of times. Because there was nothing he loved more.
And now, when that green grass is darkened by the cloud floating above him, when it’s tarnished by the dirt that is thrown at him, and when that round object has been stamped to the ground by the mass of the hungry werewolves after him; how could he still love it? If he does, he’s stronger than the rest of us put together.
What adorns his face instead of a smile is – more often than not – the burden and the weight of the world that he has to carry on his own. The fatigue – the mental fatigue – streams down his face every time he walks on that pitch. He carries the weight of the frustration and envy of an entire generation – a generation that has no understanding of the lengths of the weight he’s shouldering. And I wonder, in 30 years or so, when our grandchildren ask us about Messi – if they’re into football they’ll surely have heard of him – what will be the response of the people who spend their days trying to bring Messi down? “Oh, Messi. Yeah he was okay. But really, he wasn’t that good. He was a lazy f*ck, he had no motivation, he was a coward for never leaving Barcelona, and a tax-frauding bastard too. I used to go to the stadiums to chant insults to him, I used to spend hours on social media down-talking him”.
And I can envision the confusion on the face of the child. He’ll have heard of Messi, one way or the other. We don’t know how the picture of him will be painted to future generations, but he’s a player whose legacy will reach those generations. And that child will wonder why his granddad hated this player that could make the ball dance to the beat of his heart.
Why, then? Because he’s good? Because he’s humble to the point that annoys you? Because he toyed with your favorite team? Why? Because he was happy?
Some time ago, when Messi was in the middle of his Ballon d’Or -winning streak, there were people saying that Messi is “too perfect”. He’s the guy a mother would want her daughter to marry, a shy kid, and no one knew a thing about him. He liked football. He was good at football. After winning an award, he was “happy and honored”, but wanted to “thank the team mates”. “Annoyingly humble”, they’d grumble, “he’s not really like that, it’s all a show”.
Even now, we don’t really know anything about Messi. He still likes football. He is still good at football. He now has a son, and he says his son is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. That’s about it. But either way, the mainstream narrative has quickly gone from “too perfect and humble” to a “tax-evading little dictator”. And today – to my utter shock – we even hear Barcelona fans mumble that same exact mantra. He scores a hat-trick, plays better than anyone ever has, and the critics go mute for a moment. But they’re still there, lurking behind the curtains.
Football is no longer just played on the field, it’s also played in the press rooms, on the magazine covers. Individual awards have more to do with the right kind of publicity than the actual quality (take the recent LFP awards fiasco – where no Atlético players were awarded – for an example), there’s a saddening lack of profound analysis of the game, and players are judged not only by what they do on the field, but what they do off it.
A big part of this development has been Cristiano Ronaldo. He is the polar opposite of Messi in every possible way. Messi is shy, Cristiano is proud. In a press conference, Messi will give you a pile of platitudes, Cristiano will joke with the journalists, flash a smile and wink. On the field, Messi will look up and calculate the passing lanes, Cristiano will try to break through a concrete wall with his sheer power of will. Messi is a genius, Cristiano is a machine. Messi wears Adidas boots, Cristiano wears Nike boots. Messi plays for Barcelona, Cristiano plays for Real Madrid. It goes on and on.
And forgive me if I’m exaggerating or generalizing, but in the past three or four years, the analysis of the game has centered around these two players. Cristiano scored a goal, Messi scored two. Cristiano scored the winner, Messi missed a penalty. The pair scored such ridiculous amounts of goals that their performances were soon measured in the amount of goals they’d scored. The scorers took the headlines and suddenly the competition wasn’t fair anymore; suddenly it wasn’t about just football. Suddenly it was about who occupied more headlines, whose image was better and who won the attention of the footballing world.
We don’t know if these players ever consciously engaged in any of the competitions or comparisons between them. There are two people in the world who know how Messi and Cristiano view the competition between them, and those two people are Messi and Cristiano.
But if one thing is certain, it is that Messi stopped liking the competition the moment it was taken out of the field.
And when there is such a contrast between the two players, it has been taken full advantage of. Real Madrid’s PR-machinery have put their efforts into polishing Cristiano’s image and throwing dirt on that of Messi’s – although the latter is a matter of how you choose to interpret the press. But in the press, Cristiano is the puto amo. His camp wins every time. His camp arranged a massive “Cristiano Ronaldo – Balon de Oro” blanket at the Bernabeu, his camp made Cristiano the victim of politics and injustices in football’s governing bodies. “Blatter loves Messi”, they’d scream when Messi picked up his fourth Ballon d’Or. Just recently, his camp issued a statement saying that Cristiano should win the Ballon d’Or, and slashing Michel Platini for saying otherwise.
And while no one is denying the quality that Cristiano Ronaldo – the footballer – has, it’s clear that whatever anyone does on the pitch doesn’t have such importance as it did before, unless it is to score bucket-loads of goals. It’s no longer Messi the player versus Cristiano the player. It’s Messi the person versus Cristiano the person. It’s Real Madrid versus Barcelona. The ancient rivalry now has a strangle hold of the Ballon d’Or – the rivalry has now moved to yet another terrain. It’s as though the entire rivalry culminates in these two players and the size of their award cabinets.
And that’s where it all goes wrong, that’s where it all becomes twisted. That’s when it becomes uncomfortable for Messi, who is so private that sometimes he seems like a recluse. Messi, who just wants to play football. Messi, who – if you gave him a ball, a pitch and a goal in the middle of the desert – would spend his days dribbling that ball into the net, not caring about who sees him do it or who rates him for it, or who would give him a Ballon d’Or for it.
That’s why I hope Manuel Neuer wins the Ballon d’Or 2014. I realize that it’s a wish that might never materialize, but it’s my genuine wish, either way. Football has to stop being all about Messi and Ronaldo. Football has to stop being all about goals, about headlines. If Manuel Neuer wins, everyone will be pleased. No one can say he didn’t deserve it. No one can say he won it because of a media campaign. No one can say anything. He will stand on the stage with the Golden Ball in his arms, and people will nod in acceptance. People will say: “about time a goalkeeper was recognized”. And that will be it. Clean plate, and the year can start without grudges, without endless debates. It’s about time the focus turned back to football. And when football goes back to being all about football, maybe we’ll see that smile adorn Messi’s face more often.