I’ve always been scared of writing about Lionel Messi. Not so much scared of how people will respond to what I write, not worried about how many clicks it will get. Rather, afraid of writing something that miserably fails to do him any kind of justice. It’s like trying to explain the Universe: There’s the part we all see, there’s the part that needs to be studied to be understood, and finally, there’s the part that none of us can really grasp or comprehend. And as much as you might know about the Universe, you’ll always want to emphasize the importance of the part that can’t be explained or written down. You want to emphasize the beauty of the infinite, limitless, imposing scale of if all.
Now, when it comes to writing, I’m not a process-person. I’ll just start writing and edit my thoughts as I go. That’s the way it’s always been: A thought comes to mind and eventually ends up on paper.
With Messi it’s different. With Messi, a thought comes to mind (tons of them, really), but just as I’m about to start typing, I stop myself. I become a young toddler who is just learning to talk, who wants to say something but doesn’t quite have the words to express it. The words get stuck on the tip of my tongue, the frustration mounts and eventually the draft ends up in the virtual trash can. I’d be lying if I told you that I haven’t started more articles on Messi than I’ve finished — if you ever saw my draft folder, you’d know. Many of the drafts are still there, waiting for me to go back to them one day. But when you respect and admire something so much, you want to do it justice. And that’s why I’m scared. I’m scared that words won’t be enough in the world where we have Youtubes and Vines and GIFs that allow us to relive our favorite moments over and over again.
But oddly enough, the one thing that releases me from my anxiety is watching Messi. Watching his impossibility. Getting lost in it again and again, sinking into it, holding my breath and then surfacing with the thought of having seen the infinite. And then diving into the abyss again.
The hard part is trying to explain what your disbelieving eyes have witnessed. Trying to explain your senses, in general, is virtually impossible. Just try to explain what exactly coffee smells like. “It smells like… coffee beans?” And that’s basically as good as saying nothing. It’s an empty sentence. And yet, although no one’s ever quite able to explain it, all of us know exactly what coffee smells like, and most of us like the smell.
All of us know exactly who Lionel Messi is and how impossibly, beautifully, magnificently wonderful he is with the ball at his feet. And yet, saying that is like saying that coffee smells like coffee beans: It doesn’t even begin to explain anything. Messi is exactly like that – he’s like a scent that doesn’t need to be explained for the satisfaction to unfold.
Thankfully (and unsurprisingly) Messi and I are very different. I might be scared, but Messi never is. People say all kinds of things about him, they say that he’s a coward for not leaving Barcelona and proving that he can “do it” in the mighty Premier League. But that has never been the truth, that has never been nothing more than a herd of sheep barking at a lion.
Messi wasn’t scared when he entered the pitch wearing a Grandoli shirt in Argentina, being 5 years old and smaller than the rest of the boys. He wasn’t scared when he lead Newell’s Old Boys’ greatest ever youth team – nicknamed ‘The Machine of 87’ – even though he was still the tiniest on the pitch and was targeted and tackled by boys who were bigger, but undoubtedly less talented. He wasn’t scared when his closest Barcelona friend Ronaldinho left the club in 2008, and the legendary number 10 jersey was left for Messi to inherit. He stepped right in it, and together with some of the most talented footballers of our generation, started a dynasty.
He’s not scared now, either. He enters the pitch every weekend knowing that he will be tackled, sometimes fiercely. He goes into every match knowing that he will leave the field with bruises and scars. Knowing that if Barcelona doesn’t win and he doesn’t manage to score a goal or two, he will be criticized like no other player in his generation ever has been. Knowing that some statistician with an agenda will try to make him look bad, put the blame on him. Knowing that there’s a camera following his every move, that there’s a pair of eyes watching him every time he takes a step. Knowing that if he as much as miscontrols the ball, a video of it will go viral the moment it happens, and he will be made fun of.
Bearing in mind that Messi is quite possibly among the three best players to ever play the game (at the very least), it’s astonishing to realize how much criticism and hatred he has to absorb. But that’s the reality of being the greatest: The bar is higher.
And that’s why – in the world where technology takes over, the media controls our perception of things and inexplicable genius on a pitch is reduced to a series of statistical analyses – there’s something comforting about Messi. He doesn’t need to bend the rules. He doesn’t need to yell at the referees, make excuses, talk to the press. He doesn’t need shiny earrings and a six-pack to show off. He doesn’t need a clothing line to strengthen his brand, he doesn’t need an agent who will speak out every time a negative piece of news breaks out.
Messi needs the ball. That’s it. He’s not a player of the technological era where fast, strong, physical athletes take the center stage and people try to pretend that numbers make up for the 90-minute spectacle. He’s a player who understands the demands and irrationalities of that era, but who would rather play football from the 50’s. I suppose that’s also why he breaks records that are decades older than he himself is.
Messi is simple in that sense. He just wants the ball. He puts up with the rest of the stuff just to be able to play a match of football once a week. Just to be able to train with the ball every day. He’ll give an obligatory interview once in a blue moon, but only because he has to. Only because that’s what the world around him demands. Don’t think for a second that he enjoys it.
Being that simple and pure is brave in this day and age. It is extremely brave. It is brave to take such good care of the ball – nurture it. He protects the ball more than he protects himself. He’ll go to extremes to keep the ball, even if it means taking knocks and risking a serious injury every time a defender lunges at him in attempt to stop him. He understands that the game is – as Guardiola once put it – a game of eleven against eleven, with one ball. Whoever takes better care of the ball is more likely to get the positive result.
And even more brave it is to trust that taking care of the ball is still enough. Sometimes the tacklers win a round, but Messi keeps believing in nurturing the object that defines one’s fate in football. He’ll touch it like he’s wearing silk on his feet, he’ll dodge tackles with mind-boggling precision. Not half of what he does ends up in highlight reels and statistics, but he doesn’t need those things anyway. The people who need those things are those who no longer believe in football – the experience, the passion, the emotional roller-coaster – being enough. And those who still do believe only have to take a deep breath, tune in every weekend, and they’ll be able to touch a tiny piece of infinity — even though they can’t entirely understand it.