Messi doesn’t care. If you want to understand Messi, understand that.
It took a while for me to figure that out, but this most recent World Cup brought a lot into perspective for me regarding Lionel Messi. There have been some excellent articles on him: a piece that goes back to Rosario, a statistical breakdown that concludes Messi is impossible. And even before that, a lot of writing about a person, an entity, a thing that is impossible to put into words and next to impossible to be neutral about, because DID YOU SEE WHAT HE JUST DID??!!.
But I don’t think anyone can understand Messi because there’s nothing to understand. He just wants the ball.
As a player, he is as close to a shark as any person playing the game. Sharks just swim, and eat. Cut a shark open and you will find all kinds of stuff: shoes, trash, nets, flotsam. Whatever. It just goes into the mouth. Messi wants the ball. No, Messi needs the ball. Pure.
When you watch him, he doesn’t seem to care about an opponent or a keeper as a specific entity. Tell him that he just scored his eleventeenth goal against a team or keeper, he will look down and sort of say, “Hmmm. Well it is an honor, they are very good, blablabla.” But I honestly don’t think that it registers for him. He is as pure an agent as you will ever see. Ball. Foot. Net. Everything else is an obstacle to be surmounted.
Ronaldo and Neymar do stepovers, that “Hey, look!” shimmying that tries to fake out a defender and almost never does. Messi never, ever does stepovers. Why? Who has time for that? I want to be there, and the defender knows I want to be there. Why mess around? No time for deception. Think about his runs to goal. They are direct. He will cut and jink, but he has somewhere to be. All the time, he has somewhere to be.
On a recent Barça TV segment, the team was being filmed arriving in a city and getting off the plane. There was a baggage person, taking selfies with all the team members willing to stop for him. Messi got off the plane, ducked his head and hunched his shoulders up around his ears as he scurried past the guy. It wasn’t really a “No autographs” stance as much as a guy who just wanted to get to that thing he wanted, the ball, or preparing to be with the ball. I don’t have time for that other stuff.
Is Messi an introvert? Dunno. Does the stone face mean he doesn’t care? Dunno. We can speculate all we like, but nobody knows because you have to have clues to solve a mystery. Messi yields none. Because seemingly, he just wants to play. Kick him, foul him and he doesn’t get angry. Why bother? It’s just another impediment. Messi doesn’t dive, goes the legend, and I think it’s because he doesn’t want to depend on anything, doesn’t want to let anything stop him from getting to where he wants to be: picking the ball out of the back of the net.
Other players are happy to feel contact, go down and hope the ref makes the call. But why trust that?
In “Le Mans,” Michael Delaney said “Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
That is Messi for me, though I understand him as little as anyone else who isn’t part of his immediate family or circle of friends. You can’t understand him because there is nothing to understand for us on the outside. Might that be in part that is why he is so beloved, why his fans are so vociferous and vehement: as much as what he does on the pitch, he is a mirror. Emotionless, stone-faced and revealing of precisely nothing, coming to life only when he scores. He’s an emotional vacuum into which his fans can place their hopes and dreams, live vicariously through a player who doesn’t care about his individual statistics as much as his devotees do.
Media types love him because he is the ultimate player: no nonsense, like the baller who hangs around fields and scrambles to pick up games, because he just wants to play. Messi is just about football. That’s it. The last athlete who was that pure was Michael Jordan, of whom it is said the Bulls had to try to stop him from playing all the time — pickup games, 3-on-3s in a park somewhere, an unyielding single-mindedness that yields excellence.
And Messi is unassailable precisely because he’s so unavailable. It’s like reviewing water. Who doesn’t like water? It is what it is, and is so perfect at what it does. Messi is the perfect machine: He does stupefying things and his team wins. And his first action is to run to his teammates. No preening, no pointing to his number, no mugging, or ripping off his shirt and flexing his muscles. He only allows himself a moment to dedicate yet another tally to his late grandmother.
When he scored THAT goal against Getafe, all he did was keep running until he ran into teammates. Then he just hugged them and grinned, because that was the pinnacle of everything for him, I think. Then finally, he and Eto’o hugged, forehead to forehead, grinning like the two happiest people on the planet. The quality of the goal didn’t matter, that he beat the entire Getafe team didn’t matter.
“Hey guys! I scored a goal for us!”
It’s so beautiful it makes your heart ache, even if you aren’t a fan of the player, because it’s pure. It’s what lies at the core of the purity of the game. I don’t understand Messi, but I understand that.