Some days are crap. Nothing goes the way that you expect it to at the office, and that’s that. You kick a chair, and you go home. But imagine being Lionel Messi, when your bad day at the office is seen and more importantly analyzed, by millions.
Messi didn’t have a good match against Valencia. It happens. And allow a bit of poetic license in reading into the image of him getting off the airplane, the weight of that day, mass added to the sheer weight of being Messi. Every time the ball comes to your feet, something blissful is expected. When something blissful doesn’t happen, the world wonders why. Your very surname has become a synonym for excellence, as exceptional performances become Messiesque, or “That show was Messi!”
It’s a burden that none of us can imagine, even as people leap to the ramparts to either laud, defend or gleefully predict the demise of Messi. Ballon d’Or, best player ever, most this, most that, all of the things that go into the daily rounds of being Messi. In your home country you are debated for very different reasons as the national team is falling short of expectation and people wonder why. Every day, a never-ending blizzard of speculation, doubt, expectation and noise, from every corner of the world. It’s pretty easy to see the burden of all that in a picture.
Yet it’s also easy to see, in that very same image, the encapsulation of an athlete whose personal standard is significantly higher than that of even his most devoted fan. It’s one thing when a supporter expects Messi to be Messi. Imagine being on intimate terms with yourself, knowing what you can do, knowing you couldn’t do it and the potential cost. It’s two dropped points in the standings, and that’s all. But in a league where there is no margin for error, where a resolute opponent sits in second place, not doing anything glamorous but rolling along with the inevitability of death and taxes, those two points are heavy. For a player on whose shoulders so much weight already rests, take a moment to strive to possibly fathom what that must be like.
In that marvelous world of Barça Twitter, some were issuing the “A-ha!” of people who have found something out. Others dismiss anyone who would say anything bad about Messi as impossibly stupid. Both sides lack perspective, the necessary nuance that allows us to look at a player, even a spectacular player, as a human being. Humans have crappy days at the office all the time. How would your world change if you were an accountant, and newspaper headlines blared, the day after your bad day at the office, “Smith fails to meet deadline, client might see penalty fee!” How would that change your day-to-day life, what you do and how you do it?
It has long been my contention that either defending or slagging Messi is pointless. It’s more than truth being the ultimate defense, more than opinions being precisely that, something that isn’t right or wrong, but just is. It’s that Messi doesn’t care. More importantly, like anyone with a high standard, he is an order of magnitude harder on himself than anyone could ever be. Athletes understand this. You strive constantly to be the best, to be at your best. We see a hat trick. But what does Messi see? Maybe the passes that he missed, the shots that were just wide, the imperfections that for someone who constantly works hard to be the best, to maximize the talent that he was gifted with, work at him. Maybe. Our task is to enjoy him, to not spend so much time parsing, gushing, slagging, carping that we can’t see the simple joy of a man with a football, doing the thing that he not only loves, but is better than anyone on the planet at. How many of us have jobs that we truly love, that are also what we wanted to do when we grew up? Imagine having that, and how fragile it would seem, how desperate you would be to wring out every last drop of that elixir.
Nobody is perfect, says the ancient adage, yet the expectations we have of our athletes verge on precisely that. The Golden State Warriors in the American National Basketball Association are 22-0 to start a season that is 82 games. That start is unprecedented. The Warriors are led by a player who has suddenly come into the focus of international football fans, Stephen Curry, because he and Messi are social media buds in that way that publicists love and fans get all squishy inside. Curry is a magician at the absurd feat of standing about 23 feet from a hoop that is 18 inches in diameter, and tossing a basketball that is almost 10 inches in circumference through that hoop with a reliability that verges on statistical impossibility.
But Curry doesn’t just stand there and plop in shots. He does it with defenders in his face. He does it having faked out a defender. He does it on the run, does it floating sideways, does it night after night, game after game. His team is undefeated. Perfect. Curry isn’t just a fan of Messi. He’s also a fan of American football quarterback Cam Newton, who is leading his team, the Carolina Panthers, to a season that is, so far, perfect. The Panthers are the only undefeated team in the National Football League.
Both Curry and Newton, as have their teams, have been imperfect even as the ultimate outcomes have been, so far, flawless. We love perfection, even as so many secretly cheer for imperfection. We want someone to beat the Warriors or the Panthers as they did the previously undefeated teams. Why does perfection eat as us the way that it does? Is it something as deep as us, going through our imperfect lives in our imperfect bodies, resenting perfection? Or do those who support and crave it, who cheer for those perfect teams and athletes, do so because it is this thing that they can grab onto — perfection by association. The fat, unemployed man in the ragged replica shirt might be what he is, but his team is perfect, and that’s something.
Curry has been that kind of darling for not even a full season, really. Newton has been lauded, but he and his team have only now achieved this level of excellence. Messi has been dragging Messi around since he was a kid. Everyone has looked to him, everyone has anticipated him, everyone expects everything from him yet even at that, it probably isn’t anywhere near what he expects from himself, even as he knows that attainment of that goal is impossible.
There is a point in the life of every athlete where the standards shift. As a bicycle racer, you roll up to the line and your mind shifts from expecting to win to hoping to win to knowing that you don’t have a real chance to win. It’s a brutal progression, exacerbated by the stupidity of bodies that do what they do. They don’t care about personal or fan expectation, they don’t care about sponsor contracts or trophy celebrations. They just do what they do, as we live in them and try to stave off, by any means necessary, them doing what they are going to do anyhow.
Messi is an athlete back from a two-month injury layoff, not to a muscle, but to the most important thing in almost any athlete’s body, the knee. And this time, as with the last time Messi had a two-month injury layoff, the anticipatory declarations began as people anticipated the best being back to himself. Even as his coach said that Messi would take time to return to being Messi, a game so starved of his presence isn’t ready to allow for that. He’s back, now get back to business. And on a pitch in a stadium in which the home team has been undefeated since Barça was last there, he had a few moments where he could have made the difference, moments where he didn’t even have to be magic, just very good, and he came up short.
Nothing that anyone can say or do can withstand the white-hot fire of that disappointment to an athlete. Nothing. And even if Messi was just tired as he was getting off the plane, and the picture captured nothing more than a tired athlete looking forward to going home, that picture in the context of his match at Valencia, is worth a thousand words. It tells the story of an exceptional athlete who, until the next match, has to live with his own imperfection. And to that athlete, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, does or says.