Messi, failure and the confidence game

People who don’t like sports are difficult to understand. They stand there, noses arched toward the heavens and assert that sport is “boring,” that “they don’t understand why people get so worked up about silly games.”

The biggest reason those sorts of people are so difficult to understand is because sport is human achievement. You can’t justifiably be amazed at the endeavors of a giant brain such as Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, then purport to be bored by the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. On the human canvas writ large in a way that is impossible for mere mortals to comprehend, they inhale the same rarefied air, that scent of the absurd.

Sports is one of the most human things that we do. Strip away the untold piles of money, the egos, the misguided hero worship and pursuit of baubles slathered in precious metal of various kinds, and you’re left with humanity’s highs and lows — success and failure. Some days you are magnificent at your job. Other days you are poor in a way that leaves you sitting in your car or on the train, wondering what the hell happened. In that essential way you are no different than Messi, Ronaldo or any other great of any game you can think about.

You do your job, you know your job and at the root of it all is confidence.

Nobody really knows where confidence comes from, why some people have it and some don’t. Why the average-looking person can stroll up to a supermodel, start a conversation and wind up in a tabloid under a headline, “HIM?!”

Many argue that Tiger Woods didn’t suddenly stop knowing how to play golf, but than an essential element of what made him a great golfer, confidence, was eroded in a miasma of mea culpas and weakness, a Wallenda grounded and suddenly everything was a mess.

Confidence is more than belief. Everyone believes. Is confidence knowledge? We see it all the time, players called “confidence players.” Earnest supporters suggest that because a coach took away someone’s confidence by not playing them enough or at all, that essential quality has been eroded.

It isn’t that base quality called arrogance, because not all accomplished athletes are arrogant, even as there are many who construct these psychological edifices as a wall against that little voice, somewhere in there, that says things most of us are used to hearing. “You can’t do that.” “Too far.” “You just aren’t that fast.”

A friend ran a 2:32 at the Boston Marathon, and said that he could have gone faster. Asked why, he said that he didn’t really know he could go that fast, that he felt that good, until the last miles. That’s something more than knowledge of self, something more than the visualization exercises people do, or looking in a mirror somewhere and growling at yourself. Messi doesn’t do that. Jordan didn’t do that. They know, and that knowledge is the most elusive part of sporting greatness, that crazy sort of psychic sauce that everyone, in every last thing that they do, strives to find. That is what makes sport so universal, something that even the haughtiest of us should be able to understand. Banging out that term paper, that stroke of genius that generates the killer app, the idea that makes a problem suddenly soluble. None of it is any different, any more or less noble than what a person, muscles straining against any notions of anything remotely approaching ordinary, nails in performing a task flawlessly.

There isn’t any fear in greatness. Whether a jazz trumpeter is reaching for that note he has missed the previous 9 times but, elevated by the audience and the ensemble, a feverish grasp is extended. It isn’t that failure isn’t an option, but rather that is isn’t a consideration. That is the magic of confidence. Talent? No. Great players who have dominated games like colossi haven’t necessarily been the most talented, or the most physically gifted. What makes them mutants is the idea that they have no idea they will fail. It never occurs to them.

In an NBA basketball game, Michael Jordan, after an opponent had been trash talking him, said “This one’s for you, baby,” and sank a foul shot with his eyes closed. On national television. It is one of Jordan’s most legendary, most iconic accomplishments. It didn’t bring a championship, wasn’t a game-winning shot, wasn’t anything except a great player showing the stupefying confidence that it takes to exist on a plane that no other player can consider.

Bojan Krkic is plying his trade in Stoke. He has physically matured, a man in the diminutive body of the flitting wonder boy that he once was, and an example of the ultimate confidence player in many ways. He wasn’t the same player after he pushed that header wide against Inter Milan in that fateful Champions League semif-final. Before that, he was a player whose quality shone so brightly that his coach benched the most talented striker on the planet in favor of a runt who barely reached Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s breastbone.

Krkic danced around the pitch in that way that makes you wonder if a player has the gift of foresight, as Ibrahimovic fumed like Achilles in that slave girl-induced rage. He scored goals, solidified his place, and then came That Header. No matter how many times you watch it, the same conclusion is reached: How did he miss that? Someone could tell you scientifically, that the way a fast-moving ball bounced off a head … hair gel … a cowlick that affects flight … there are any number of things that could have happened, but the simple reality is that he missed a header that would have elevated a team from, potentially, great to supernatural.

Some might speculate that he wasn’t the same after that header because the audibility of the voice that every person, every athlete, every everyman has, got just loud enough to reduce confidence to mere belief. Dancing on the crazy edge of maximizing performance becomes just a bit more difficult. You feet slip and down you go, down the pecking order and to Roma, where you aren’t the same player because you don’t have the same confidence, even if you have the same talent. It’s all different now because there is something eating at you.

Lionel Messi is the greatest player that anyone has ever seen play this game, but even superman has kryptonite: penalty shots. Messi has missed a remarkable number of them for a player who scores goals that make angels sing. He does the impossible so routinely that you wonder what it is about him, facing a single player rather than a phalanx of defenders, a stationary target amid a world of glorious possibilities and angles all created from the whole cloth of genius, that turns him into something ordinary, something human. He can run through 3 defenders, make one of the best defenders in world football fall down then out think one of the best keepers in the game, all in a few seconds.

But he can’t knock a simple shot past a goalkeeper, when all he has to do is run up and hit it. Do penalty shots exist in a walled-off annex in Messi’s brain, a place that isn’t allowed to affect the rest of his craft, the “Uh, oh” that comes only when the world is perfectly still and he is facing the thing that he suddenly can’t face.

His most recent miss, against Athletic Bilbao, was almost majestic in its low quality, like a god deciding he will stumble down the mountain instead of floating, to give the mortals a show. He almost strolled up to it and struck, a medium-hard, low shot that Gorka Iraizoz probably could have just kicked away and then glared, even as he dove, rose to his feet and exulted, enough to show delight but not so much that Messi would have been angered.

Messi, after the shot, kicked at the turf in an almost childlike pique, the one thing that mars his perfection having reared its head yet again, a reaction almost like the “Aw, man!” of affirmation rather than the rage in the wake of expectation.

In the wake of the match, a piece was written that dared to muse whether Messi was still the automatic penalty taker, an article that teased with its headline then ultimately, like Iraizoz, chickened out as if afraid to anger the deities.

Great players aren’t necessarily good at penalties, that spot that gives them nowhere to hide, almost as if they prefer the world to be in motion, this series of puzzles to solve on the way to affirming what everyone already knows about them. Solving a puzzle that I have time to think about? Where’s the fun in that? I need three defenders, and a fourth one grabbing at my jersey while the keeper charges at me. Left on their own in the stillness that always descends upon a stadium just before the penalty is struck to too isolated, too still.

It’s at those times that ego can augment confidence. Ibrahimovic wants nothing more than for the world to look at him, it seems. His penalty strikes are these majestic rockets that seem to leave a contrail of fire. Keepers make half-hearted dives at them, understanding that even if they got a hand to it, force and ferocity would giggle at them. He doesn’t strike the ball as much as he smites it, and turns away often before it even slashes at the back ot the net, arms raised, face saying “Of course.” Ibrahimovic isn’t the mind-bending attacking force that Messi is, but what culer doesn’t wish we could blink him in to take penalties for Barça, the ultimate ringer. Mon oncle, de Paris … voila.


Hucksters, con artists, think of confidence as a game, something they are selling. They have to use things, create the illusion of trust, selling you confidence in them, which enables the boondoggle. But even in athletics, there is something of that mental shell game as players who we trust, who we believe in, sell us that confidence, that feeling that they and only they are The One. Messi walks up to the spot. Nobody else even considers taking a penalty. Of course that is reserved for the greatest of them all, The One.

He once let Neymar take a penalty, and all of that Brazlian flair, shot-making prowess and flat-out genius failed, and was stopped. What does it take? Or is it that their confidence is so great that it never occurs to them that their shot will be stopped, that it almost doesn’t matter what they put up there. Or do they think so much that they out-think themselves, opting for something like the trickster, like the fedora-wearing tout at the bus station flipping cards around. When you can do anything, what do you choose to do?

There is no player in world football who inspires more confidence in his devotees than Messi with the ball at his feet. It’s money. Even if a goal doesn’t happen, something good is going to. Bet the house on it. It’s those quiet moments that we, and he, become as vulnerable as he seems to be, and it’s at those times that confidence well and truly becomes the game that it is, the fleeting thing that dominates, that controls and alters. It reduces boy wonders to European vagabonds, team shopping as newlyweds look for houses. It reduces coaches to masses of uncertainty, reduces the greatest player in the game to some kid in the park who has missed again.

This is ultimately why sport is so engrossing, why we love the game and why it is so unfathomable that anyone doesn’t. It’s life. Everyone has done something that requires confidence, that unshakable something that requires that thing beyond belief, beyond faith. It’s human, as human as the beauty and failure that make sport everything that we are.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. There was a great analysis on Messi’s penalties in the Perarnau Magazine, don’t know if anyone could find a link for it. Basically it said that when Messi is at his most confident he waits for the goalie to react and only then decides where to shoot. But when his confidence is lower, he waits for the goalie’s move but if there’s doubt he usually goes to his stronger side, the right one. Most of his missed penalties have also been saved from that side.

    The one against Athletic, of course, was on the other side but it was basically the same method he used: he tried to wait for the goalie’s move and perhaps got caught in between and just passed it to one side.

    It really is a weird thing with him and penalties – brilliantly described in this piece, Kxevin. For someone who can do whatever he wants with the ball, it’s incredible how he struggles with them. But I suppose there’s logic to it, too. He’s someone who operates on instincts inside the game, and when he has too much time to think, the aspect of inhumane instincts – which gives him the advantage – is removed from his game. Sometimes you’ll see the same when he has a lot of time one on one against the goalie, like that late 2-0 goal vs Valencia last season (although he was also knackered on that occasion).

  2. It’s interesting how much confidence can affect a player’s game. There were indeed games with Bojan where it looked like we had a mini Messi, with a thunderous shot and instinctive runs. And in that game vs. Inter there was also that annulled goal, which Bojan slammed home and should have given us the win. But he indeed never seemed to recover that quality of play, and off he went to try his luck with other clubs.

    And as I type this we almost, finally, got a goal from Masche! There’s one player who never seems devoid of confidence!

  3. Hm now what??Vermaelen was a beast and scored the winning goal.Roberto again was good.The team played a solid game.We used seven(7) la masia players.Not bad.

  4. Well, we did what we couldnt do last year…score against (and defeat) Malaga.

    Shouldnt have been so tough, credit to Kameni who is always a beast against us. The ref played his part too. Malaga kicked us around with near impunity and we were also denied a couple of PKs. We won all the same. A great performance as far as I am concerned.

  5. First: brilliant article on a perplexing issue, thanks! About the Malaga game, I was really pleased to see how Barca raised its game in the second half, pinning Malaga down without letting them breathe for a second. Old school Barca pressure, passing and composure. Final sharpness of passes are still to be conjured up, but it will come. I think Andrés was fabulous as a playmaker, Messi and Neymar combined brilliantly, only a bit over-elaborate, it will improve as they both ease into full form and fitness. I am confident the goals will come (though the feeling is Messi plays even deeper this year). Neymar already showed his importance. Roberto kept impressing and so did TV. Raki was, to me, disappointing on a few occasions, but hopefully for him – too – it will come with some time.

    Overall, this was a great win in a difficult game, and the team shows abundance of promise all around!

  6. First of all, good result. They are a difficult aggressive team to play against and with the ref not quite up to the job could easily have created an upset. Bit early to be making snap judgements about the team but suffice to say my worries about the midfield haven’t gone away. Great games from TV, Iniesta and Messi I thought, ‘though. Suarez gets an honourable mention just because he must be hell to play against. He never stops. And I thought Rafinha added a creative edge with his running,badly needed, when he came on. Also, can’t understand why anyone at this point would prefer TS over Bravo. Although he may be the future, he doesn’t fill me with confidence the way Bravo does.

    1. Meant to say. Just a little niggle at the back of my mind about LE’s comment that TV isn’t at full fitness and Belguim will have to assess his fitness. Why say that when everyone has been concerned about it ? No obvious signs yesterday for me. Couple of full on sprints. Unless he is trying to dampen the idea he can play regularly at the moment ?

  7. I think I have cracked that one Jim!! Vermaelen is crucial to Barca for the next couple of games till Pique is back. Also, cos of his performance he has been called by the Belgian NT. Now, Enrique doesn’t want to lose Vermaelen due to an injury with the crucial Atleti as well as Champions league first group game coming up after the break. So I suppose he is sowing the doubts in the mind of the Belgian NT coach. Of course if he is assessed fit by their doctors, it wont matter much. But hey, whats the harm in trying!!
    On a side note, I watched Roberto closely in the last match and he was brilliant once more. His interceptions at the back and his decision making while running forward seems Class A stuff.
    I think we may just have stumbled onto Dani boys replacement, 🙂

  8. The most important thing in every football club is chemistry.Thats why we are the best team the last 25 years.I remember the Gaspart years with the endless crazy transfers a la madrid.Our worst years.We dont won so much because just of Messi.But because we make smart transfers and we have a core in the team.People say that madrid have a better squad.Maybe.Maybe not.What i know is we have a better team.I love that we dont make transfers the last day.I love that the players we loan out can play against us.I love that we have a lot la masia players in the squad.Maybe we dont have the best board but even that way we are the best club in the world.

  9. According to reports via Skysports, Man utd have completed €50million deal for Anthony Martial. Smart one from LVG. The kid is tremendous, was happy when i heard we were interested in as Pedro’s replc. But our interest waned. Lol felt a little bad he’s gone to Utd, always dreamt of him playing for us. Speed,control,finishing,highly intelligent at just 19. Nice long term buy for utd.

    1. Don’t know the guy at all but I do know United were desperate to bring in someone for a lot of money. If he’s an unproven kid that’s a huge gambol. I notice they’re also talking about Januzaj possibly leaving. Now he is one I do ( or is it did?) rate. Problem is United ( and in particular LVG) need success now so no room really for bringing on any youngsters.

    2. Man United seems like a lost cause now. The current board has ruined what SAF has built.

      They couldn’t spend a bit more for established world class players Pedro and Otamendi but they can overpay for an unproven talent In Martial and bench Their best player de Gea?

      I would be really frustrated if I was their fan.

  10. Really well played by the club.

    For the past couple of seasons they made great buys. Just that the managers couldn’t incorporate them well. So If Rafa can manage the players and tactics well, they will be favourites for all trophies for the next few seasons.

    I would be excited if I was a fan.

  11. It seems that at least 3 countries don’t have the rights yet for La Liga matches even though the season has begun. Malaysia, Philipines and Denmark doesn’t have them based from the reader comments elsewhere.

    I was cursing my local service provider/channel (Fox Sports) for not getting it done before the season started. . But the problem could lie with La Liga’s media pro themselves. Remember the Sky/BT saga in England? The same could be happening in other parts of the world. I wouldn’t be surprised.

    1. For us in India, it looks better this year. La liga has left Star Sports and it is with Sony now. For the last two rounds, they showed many matches live, which is a good sign. Star sports never did that, mostly only the big two’s and an occassional small team or mid team here and there. If Sony will do the same for the whole season, I will be very happy about them. The only issue is their half time break. They keep showing the highlights of the same match for every half time 🙂

  12. How funny is to say that Barca depends on Messi and the same time when two clubs that cules believe they have better squads than us,when they dont have Modric or Robben cant win the big trophy.Well at least we depend in the best player in the world.I am bored that cules give credit every summer to other clubs transfers and discredit ours.But in the field the team shut the mouths.

    1. Agree with u! And sometimes i sincerely want to ask people to go and support the team whoever they believe have better squad, players….it is not like the team/club is perfect or not wanting to discuss our weaknesses. Perspective is very much needed from some of us.

    1. I have a feeling Madrid knew exactly what they were doing. They could get him on a free now, unless De Gea is mad at EE for making him spend more time with Van Gall. And till then Navas is absolutely good, to my eyes .

    2. I also think that Madrid got the best deal. They will get de Gea for free next summer and still have a beast of a GK in Navas.

      The biggest loser is Man United and de Gea. The former losing out on a lot of money and a much better gk than Romero. It’s all about ego it seems. United don’t need the money. Why’d can’t they just play de Gea? He’s the sole reason why they managed to finish top 4 last season. Silly stuff.

  13. The Madrid/ DE gea saga sounds v suspicious– I cannot believe that Madrid couldn’t get it done. They must feel OK with navas.

  14. If Barto did what Perez did with De Gea i am sure that every cule would want him out.But now i see people try to tell us that Madrid is the winner.And from when Navas is a world class GK???In your dreams maybe.

  15. It s simple.Madrid failed to sign the player they wanted and they will have a GK that they wanted to sell.So simple.And the failure is something familiar with Flo flo since 2009.The worst management in a top club.

  16. And a last comment about madrid squad admirers:In the last 14 clasico for La Liga we have 9wins 2draws and 3 losses.We are the boss of Spain.And Europe.And World!!!!!

  17. We have 2 excellent GKs.We have the best RB in the world.We have the best CB in the world.The best DM.The best CM.The best 9.The best LW.The best player.One of the 2 best LB in the world.Who s better than us??Nobody.We are the team to beat.We are the champions.We are the best.They can take their squads and come to meet us.We will destroy u all.And u know how good we are??We can use as RB a young MF.We can use a DM as a CB.We can do whatever we want.And still we can beat u all.

  18. A and a question:If madrid wanted the deal to fail why offered Navas to United???I mean if Navas is a beast and they knew that the deal will fail,why to offered him to United??See that this theories is for 6y old kids;-)

    1. Probably to make the whole episode an authentic look. As in every crime scene, an experienced criminal would leave/do something to mislead the investigation.

  19. I am always fascinated by how luisthebeast somehow convinced himself that Piquè is the best CB in the world 😀

  20. I found a very interesting statistic:Barca had only 5 appereances to European Champions Cup before CL years.In those 5 times we won 1 we played 2 finals and 2 SF.In CL we have 19 appereances.We won 4 we played 1 final and 6 SF.So in 24 times in the competition we have 5 trophies 3 lost finals and 8 SF.If we think about it is truly great statistics.

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