“Was this trip really necessary,” muses the driver, gazing at the wrecked Ferrari after a trip to the local 24-hour grocery store for some chips became something much worse. Had chips at home, but wanted a certain kind, didn’t have to mash the throttle so hard, could have taken the Ford, dammit, dammit, dammit!
Here we all are, breathing an immense sigh of relief after the knowledge that our best player is going to be okay, and might even be fit enough to play on Sunday. But, for about an hour, from when he took the shot and crumpled to the pitch, everyone was thinking, This Is It.
What’s funny is all during the match, watching with a friend, I was ranting about how Messi shouldn’t play, how there was no point to his playing, etc, etc. Cold night in Barcelona, Benfical NEEDS a win while we’re playing out the string. They’re also feeling pretty cranky anyhow about Messi’s comments that he’d like Celtic to go through, so he got some extra kicks and extra hard fouls from the Benfica players. All’s fair, right? And then there he was, laying on the pitch and all I could think was, “You don’t drive the Ferrari unless you need to.”
I was also thinking that this is the time for Tito Vilanova to grab the reins of this horse that is Lionel Messi, and get him to understand who is the coach. Because nobody does what they want, no player plays when he likes. We hear the rationalizations, that Messi thrives on playing, that he needs to play, that it’s his life blood. It’s an almost childlike joy that he takes from the game. So he plays. And plays. And plays some more. And he gets that thousand-yard stare, and the beard comes, and he starts walking/standing around as if he’s waiting for the bus. “But he needs to play, he loves to play, let him play.”
Then we see him after some time off and marvel at the difference, how fast and smart he plays, as if his powers of speed and telepathy are enhanced by being fresh, even as we never, ever consider a starting lineup that doesn’t have Messi in it.
It’s unthinkable. Our superstar wants to play. He just loves the game so much. You can’t make him angry by not letting him play when he wants to. To this I say, why the hell not? Vilanova is the coach. Messi is the player who the coach is in charge of. What the coach says, goes. As my late Grams would say, “You’re mad? Scratch your ass and get glad!”
In many ways, it is an odd sort of unassailable tyranny that Messi perpetrates. He loves the game, and wants to play all the time. How can anybody argue with that? It isn’t even about playing time, as it is with other players. It’s just about wanting to do something at which he is extraordinary, as often as he can. Do you want to be the one who shackles Messi, the one who got him angry about not playing, to the point where he’s sulky and less productive?
Be for real. You can’t squash a player like Messi’s love of the game by not letting him play as much as he wants. Further, Messi is a consummate professional. Can anyone really see him not giving of his best because he doesn’t get his way all of the time? Again, be for real. At management training school, we learned the art of managing up, dealing with your boss and managing that person in a way that helps you get the results that you need. In an odd way, that’s the position that Vilanova is in, with his superstar.
As we all know, Messi is chasing a record that was assumed would never be caught, much less broken. He played against Benfica for no reason other than he wanted to play …. and then there’s that record business. Everyone can puff out their vicarious chests and say “Our Leo Messi is the greatest scorer in the history of the game. The objective stats say so.” Then we start the engine of the Ferrari ….
But there is absolutely no blame to be had in this near miss. Who among us wants to take candy from a baby, in this case playing time away from the world’s best player? But I say that Vilanova has to, because this isn’t about Messi, or the Muller record. It’s about FC Barcelona and the collective success of the team, a success that a damaged superstar can derail, simply because a coach doesn’t have the heart to say “You don’t play today.”