The World Cup is over and now the debates begin about Messi, roiling tempests that reduce the actual winner of the tournament to a seeming afterthought.
And they are so predictable that it’s almost lazy, as if by rote the same lines are drawn by the same groups of people:
— Look at the stats. He’s the best.
— He failed on the big stage, so he isn’t the GOAT.
— Y’all need to leave him alone, he is still the GOAT.
— Etc, etc, ad infinitum.
The truth is that there is no truth. It’s all immaterial.
What a final, and what a tournament. Germany got the better of an ultimately exhausted Argentina side via an extraordinary bit of play that culminated in a full-on golazo from Mario Gotze. Some are saying that now he will be compared to Iniesta. Nope. It’s intellectually lazy to defend it, make the comparison or suggest it. He is a very good player who scored a marvelous goal at a perfect time in an amazing match.
Some are trying to define the match by failure, that Higuain, Aguero and Palacio were festering crap. Well they were, but strikers bottle chances all the time. No reason for the moment to elevate that expectation. As we all know in football, there is no such thing as a gimme.
Both teams fought, clawed and grasped. Finally, Germany won. They should justly be being celebrated, even as a footballing world seems to going nuts about a player from the losing side, in an attempt to deal with that player and expectations.
Argentina wasn’t supposed to be in a position to win a World Cup. Not with the state that team was in. A core of players — Di Maria, Mascherano, Messi — dragged them into position. One player is never going to beat a team. Hell, that even two players came close to beating a team is worthy of celebration, rather than excoriation.
Instead, the hunting parties are out, trying to either bring down or prop up a great player, dependent upon worldview.
Black and white
Football is fundamentally a game of absolutes. The ball went in the net or it didn’t. You won or you lost. Such absolutes leave people, in the aftermath of these events, to bask in the waters of subjectivity. The objective people say that statistics make it clear that Messi is GOAT, etc, etc, but which stats? The stat that matters says that Germany won, 1-0. So then, the objective subjectivity begins.
“He had the most take-ons, most key passes, most dribbles, most this, most that,” as if any of that stuff matters to the players on the pitch. Messi won the Golden Ball, and people snarked about that. This sparked vehement defense from the pro-Messi crowd, people lining up to scoff at haters and those who would judge a great player, or deny him his moment in history, etc.
But again, reality is in the middle. Messi had a good final. Not a great one. Did he have a final befitting the player that he is and the moment? That is where wretched subjectivity enters the picture, something debated by legions who really have not much invested in the outcome except for pride, maybe some money on a bet or just the spirit of the debate. Messi will say that it wasn’t a good final because he didn’t win, which is the only measure that matters to players who contest the matches.
Sides are drawn. “You hate Messi.” “You aren’t being fair.” “Look at the statistics.” None of it matters.
Love, hate and standards
“Hate” and “haters” are thrown about a lot these days. Many say that Messi has haters. Even if there are people that blinkered, his devotees outnumber his haters by 48,000-1 or some such astonishing stat, because Messi is that perfect machine, that pure player. People love him, and they always will, just as they will always defend him from his alleged haters. That defense, however well-intentioned, however, doesn’t allow for failure for a player and his expectations that are frozen in amber.
Look at the scoring chance that Messi missed. That was his first actual shot on goal. Had he made it, he would have had a 100% finishing rate for the match. Even my appalling math skills can figure that one out. But he missed. Statistically, he has an otherworldly finishing rate hovering somewhere around 30 percent. So if he shoots 10 times, 3-4 of them will go in. Wow.
So by missing that shot, did he fail? And if so, in which sense? Or did he just meet statistical expectation? Give him a few more shots and one of them probably goes in, but Germany worked its tails off to ensure that such things didn’t happen. And that’s the problem with defining a result by failure. Messi didn’t fail because he missed that shot. Messi was part of a collective that didn’t win the match, even as they succeeded in giving their all to try to win that match. It’s the danger of defining success in absolutes, and trying to define a player by that absolute standard.
Back when I reviewed concerts, I would evaluate a band on how good the band was at being the band. Easy, right? You’d be amazed at how many bands positively suck at being themselves, that is, at meeting the standard that they have set. With Messi, he has become his own standard. But even then, which Messi? There is the sprightly one that used to run like crazy, score goals and tumble around. There is the all-conquering Messi that scored a bazillion goals, and set a record. Or is it the most recent Messi, still a great player and still influential, but no longer the truly dominant force that he was when he was scoring goals for fun.
So as people stake out space and talk about meeting expectations without knowing what that expectation is, it becomes impossible to define a standard. Supporters tend to always remember a player at his absolute best. For many of them, Messi is still the 90 goals in a calendar year dude, and don’t tell me he isn’t! But they allow leeway, that he can’t always be that player and he needs help, etc. His teammates let him down, he would be great if he didn’t have 3-4 players marking him, etc, etc.
Other folks are using the Otherworldly Messi standard and saying that he wasn’t that player, so he failed. Still others are wondering just what the hell IS going on with the Best Player Alive™, and are struggling with precisely how to evaluate him.
Still others are saying that statistically, he is wonderful. He scored 40+ goals last season, etc, etc. So shut up.
The new right now
Everyone evaluating and striving to place Messi somewhere is right, and wrong, just as it is impossible for them to be anything other than right and wrong. “He didn’t win. He failed and isn’t the GOAT.” Okay. “He is the greatest because of what he has done.” Okay. “Look at what he has done, the championships and goals.” Okay. “He isn’t GOAT because of what Maradona did.” Okay.
Players simply are what they are at the moment, the ultimate conscious beings in the “be here now” sense. If a Super Bowl-winning quarterback throws 4 interceptions, he doesn’t stop being a great QB. He is just that QB on an off day. What if Messi had played a crap Final, while Higuain played out of his mind, scored a hat trick, tracked back and dominated play. Would Messi have been GOAT because well, he won a World Cup? Good question.
So what if Messi is a great player who had one extraordinary season, as great players often do. And what if the evaluative standard that people are now holding him to — none of them, really — apply. What if to evaluate Messi what we have to do is take him for the player that he is right now, bereft of expectations or past glories, knock off the incessant ranking and GOAT stuff. Take off the beer goggles, take off the “Aha!” stuff that people who wait for wonderful things to not be wonderful become so adept at trotting out, dispense with the fundamentally worthless statistical analysis that attempts to define a player in a losing effort, a la “Messi had 8 successful dribbles in Argentina’s 2-1 loss.”
What is Messi right now.
In the endless debates about GOAT, status and greatness, it’s all pointless except as fodder for bandwidth arguments and pub debates. There is no right or wrong in subjectivity, only opinion. In one person’s opinion, Mardona is the greatest. In another person’s opinion, Messi is. Standards shift. Today he has to win a World Cup, tomorrow he doesn’t, and is still GOAT even if his teams don’t win another match. All subjective and immaterial, because for the person for whom any of this really matters, Lionel Messi, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that Germany hoisted the World Cup trophy.
All the rest is bench racing.