October 16, 2004, Barça v Espanyol and No. 30, some kid named Messi, ran onto the pitch to sub for Deco.
No. 30 looked kinda lost as the game passed him by. He took a pass, lost it and ran it down. He got pushed off the ball, lost another ball and in many ways looked like what he was: a youth player getting his first-team blooding against a nasty opponent. It wasn’t until this streak ran into the Espanyol box after a loose ball that the eyebrows raised, that you began to think this might be something more than just a wee trickster.
Then, on the right wing he took a pass in space, a moment that in the here and now would have keepers and def … never mind. It would never happen in the here and now. But then, he took the pass in space, marked by a single defender who shouldered him, forced him to the inside where the ball was poked away.
As he walked off the pitch after the match, not much larger than the diminutive woman interviewing him, he exuded a sense of irritation, a feeling that he wasn’t happy with his performance. Back then he was the Next Big Thing, a talent whose services were secured on a now-iconic napkin, an inscription making it kinda like the Shroud of Camp Nou. Anybody who watched that debut performance and claimed that they had any inkling, any notion that the wee, hyperactive No. 30 was going to become the best player to ever play the game, is a liar. We knew there was talent, ball skills and pace. But back then there wasn’t Barça Twitter, there weren’t accounts that breathlessly chronicled the exploits of players whose testicles haven’t even dropped yet.
There were just press reports, rumors and buzz, this electric thing that told everyone, everywhere to watch out for this Messi kid, that he was going to be something special.
In the here and now even those glowing prophesies were far, far from the truth. Because Lionel Andres Messi has become not just something special. That would be selling him short. He is this thing that has screwed up the game for so, so many people. He redefines expectations then crushes them, he makes the exploits of all other attackers seem mundane. Even a physical force such as Cristiano Ronaldo, a great in his own right who puts up stunning numbers is second best, and it ain’t even close.
In many ways what Messi has done is kinda crazy in that head-shaking way that athletic endeavor inspires. The goal numbers are jaw-dropping. When you consider his age, that he still has many more minutes to play, many more matches to dominate, it makes you wonder if every yardstick, every record that an attacker could possibly hope to grasp, will be this sort of Olympus. People will mention them and just shake their heads. Yes, you will score a lot of goals. No, you won’t score that many goals.
Messi occupies an odd place for me in that because of the steadfast belief in not being a fan of any player, it’s easier to appreciate what he does for the club that we all love. It’s easy to place his exploits in a broader context. As Messi himself says, it isn’t the records but the championships, the victories that make it all worth it. The records are things that others keep track of. But the most interesting about Messi for me isn’t what he does when he is putting the ball in the net but what he has done to the game, what people expect from him and no other player.
There are goals that other players score that make various Goals of the Week or Season compilations, goals that we have watched Messi score as a matter of consequence, do his devotion to the heavens and trot back to the center circle, eager to do it again. Those extraordinary feats seem almost commonplace now, like we forget how impossible they are. Even when ESPN’s SportScience broke down, by numbers, his astounding goal against Athletic Club in the Copa final, we still didn’t understand it. 0-19 mph in less than 3 seconds, breaking down 3 defenders in less than 2 seconds with 3 touches AND a nutmeg, then banging off a 48 mph shot with zero backlift that found a gap of less than a foot between the keeper and the near post. It really is a remarkable thing to watch, as science can’t even get its mind around what Messi is capable of doing.
Most players get a goal like that per playing career. But every stunning goal that Messi scores has an analog in that very same player’s career, in multiples. Or what about the goal against Bayern Munich, where he turned a world-class defender into a falling sequoia, or the legendary Getafe goal, a tally that many consider one of the greatest goals ever witnessed.
But from my seat, a place in which it would be impossible to define a Top 5 Messi Goals, my mind always remembers that first goal against AC Milan in the Champions League, a goal that in its wake left nothingness in my head, like the state we strive for when meditating, only that black space is filled with popping flashbulbs, thunderbolts and exclamation points.
If you watch the goal, at the moment he strikes the ball he is bracketed by 4 Milan defenders. He has to strike the ball in a way that bends it around the two leftmost defenders but curves the shot into the top corner. He also has to hit it with enough force to get it past an on-form net minder, all in space the size of a phone booth, without the backlift that tells a defender and keeper that a shot is coming. Add to that the pressure of a Champions League match that Barça absolutely had to win, all of the impossible weight and expectation on those low-sitting shoulders, and he does that. That!
We don’t often speak of beauty in sport from an aesthetic sense, of a moment so perfect, so sublime as to bring tears. Art does it, music does it, but usually sport sparks tears of joy or sadness – rarely indescribable beauty. But that moment … it’s a truly stunning thing.
And that isn’t even Messi’s best goal.
That’s what is, from my keyboard, so remarkable about him as a player. He has done so many things that people are starting to create new ways to endeavor to define the stuff that he does. Over at Grup 14 is the pre-assisted goal because hell, everything else is taken and there has to be some new way to strive to quantify the unquantifiable.
Back when this site did player ratings for a match and Messi would get a 4 after scoring a hat trick and people would scream, “You hate Messi,” etc, etc, the struggle was to explain that by his personal standard a hat trick, just a hat trick compared to the overall effect that he can have on a match, was kinda ordinary, kinda mundane. Last season was the perfect illustration of that notion, a year in which Barca insiders predicted great things for the club because Messi was fully engaged. And while people mistakenly credit all of the team’s success to Messi, what shouldn’t be underestimated is his overall effect on the team and its mentality. If the best player the game has ever seen can go this hard, can ram his head into a brick wall, who am I to slack off?
The goals come and go, but the effect that Messi has on a collective – coming off the bench at the Camp Nou to turn a Champions League tie. Scoring That Goal against Bayern to define the tie in a way that was as compelling as theater, running at Atleti for the first goal in a 3-1 win as he looked almost like a savage – is more compelling for a wordsmithing hack than goals scored, even great goals.
No other player has created the same sense of expectation, of sheer weight whenever he goes near the ball, and no other player delivers with the reliability of Messi. The psychology of sport is a remarkable thing. Argentina’s national team repeatedly fails at the biggest hurdles, for reasons that nobody can explain as top-class players grab at their most pedestrian qualities. Some athletes choke at key moments while others rise above. The idea of a player being “clutch” has been discussed before, that special something that with every last little thing on the line, makes some just that little bit better, better enough to make a difference.
In that realm beyond clutch, there is Messi. Eleven years ago today, we didn’t have a goal to celebrate. We had an energetic-but-uneven performance to mull over. The goals didn’t come until later, followed by blizzards of goals and sonnets of praise. But the thing for this culer that is most worth celebrating is that Messi is a cold-hearted little thug who wants to rip an opponent’s soul out. For Barça. Like Carles Puyol, he gives everything. He wants to kill. If he were a defender he would probably be most like Mascherano, an eviscerating, slide-tackling heathen. It is that same quality that he brings to attack, and that is the real beauty of Messi’s game.
There will be matches where he will be stopped, matches where he will not score goals, matches where his goals will be ordinary. None of that matters because it is the psychology of Messi that is so extraordinary, that makes him what he is and that lets us, week after week, be elevated by the possibilities that he creates.