It’s hard work being Messi

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.

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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.

12 Comments

  1. ChaoticReaper
    December 7, 2015

    I’d prefer Messi to stay in the midfield and abandon his finishing duties unless he is in Bayern form. We are much more lethal with Neymar and Suarez dictating the attack.

  2. ChaoticReaper
    December 7, 2015

    Also this is why I was very surprised by El Clasico. We never bury our chances like we did in that game

  3. Davour
    December 7, 2015

    Thanks for a beautiful piece. His frustration was evident for all to see, of course, and we can only hope he finds the inner calm not to push himself dangerously, but to wait and let things take their course.

    I recently watched a video compilation of young Messi dribbling (yes, I should really have been working) and the comparison is interesting. There the young, raw (yet already magnificent) talent is so striking – he is one with the movement. Often being too engulfed by the joy of bringing the ball further past the next opponent to make the right decision, perhaps. But man, what storm he was.

    Now (as evident last season), he is rather one with the game, analysing not only how to get past the next opponent, but how this influence the game; hence, he passes the ball more often, looking to use his team and their movement, and employ his skills to its overall benefit. And with this comes responsibility, burden.

    Hopefully, this season will be the death of the Messi-Ronaldo goal competition, and we can focus on the overall game and the influence Messi has in different aspects of it. If Messi decides, really, that goals are not as important anymore (been there, done that), we are in for another couple of great years.

  4. luisthebeast
    December 7, 2015

    Football is a team sport.Many people say:Hey it s not fair,u have Neymar Suarez Messi!Yeah u know what?In 2007 we had Messi Ronaldhinio Eto Henry!!What we won with the fantastic four??Nothing,Zero.The fact that we have Leo its not guaranteed anything.Yep he is the best.But if the rest of the team dont have the right chemistry or the coach lost control you have a failure.Pele,Cruyff,Maradona won trophies but we are in 2015.Football is by far more competive and difficult.And Leo have 7 ligas and 4 CL.THATS HUGE NUMBERS.As we saw against Valencia u can play a good game but a moment can make u draw.Thats football.The taste of victory is more sweet when u have to suffer for it.I enoy more the games now when we must fight hard to win.LEO IS THE BEST.But football is and always be a Team sport.We must never forget that.

    • December 8, 2015

      Football has always been a team game Luis, even during Pele, Cruff and Maradona. Pele was not the best player in any of the 3 wcups he won. He hardly completed 1 game in one of those cups. And the 70’s team was a huge assortment of talents in which Pele was just another normal one. It is no wonder that Brazilians voted Garrincha above Pele. Maradona, even if gets the credit of ”single handedly’ the most, it wasnt as some British writer saw. That team was groomed to play to his strengths. A certain ex captain super star , Passeralla, who didnt approve this, sat on the bench for the whole tournament. Further, there was absolutely no pressure on that team, like say Argentia of ’10 or ’14. And players like Valdano did finish their chances, when Maradona created. Maradona was never double marked in that tournament. In fact L Matheus by himself managed to nullify Deigo for nearly the whole match, except for the final assist (the best man marker I have ever seen).
      And see what happened, when Maradona came into the 90 WC with lots of expectations, with teams concentrating wholly on stopping him. It was the heroics of Goycoechea, who saved penalties after penalties, that dragged them to the finals.
      No one player will never win a football match.

  5. Kd
    December 8, 2015

    Well said Kxevin. And where did you get that picture? Its beautiful. I kept scrolling back up to look at it. As a Barca fan it was quite hard for me to come to terms with the fact that Ronaldinho had lost that burst of pace. That he was not going to be the Ronaldinho I had admired and adored. And you have scared me man. I dont think Messi has reached that stage where he is just that much marginally less!! I would love to, and do believe that he’s just back from a big layoff and its going to take some more time for him to reach the Messi level we are so used to. One wonders “But earlier, he would just come back from an injury and start from where he has left off!!” But then that was earlier. He is older now. The body takes more time to recover and his knees have always troubled him. I am so glad that he has his kids (or kid) now when he goes back home. Cos then the kid takes all your troubles away. Its just about the kid then. You completely switch off!! I hope he doesn’t think too much about his performance. And mind you, it was a bloody good performance for most footballers. I hope the people around him will give him that mental peace. Cos Messi will be back. And he will be back with a bang!!

  6. raj
    December 8, 2015

    Ah, he’s probably looking at his shoes, wondering if they match the black pants..

  7. ooga aga
    December 8, 2015

    Wonderful stuff kxevin, thank you .

  8. lala10
    December 8, 2015

    Enter Your Comment… The demise of Messi gnaws at all of us. Our souls are rendered. What makes it more ironic is the fact that the team played well in his absence and pressed harder. He chooses his moments when to press and coupled with coming from injury he is not fit enough to do that as well.

    With Neymar doing so well we might be tempted to ask: is this team better off now without Messi? Given how it coped during his injury can it cope in the future without him? Its tempting and fellow cules i was watching the game were a bit annoyed that the rythm Ney and Luis seemed to be affected now he is back.

    But this is a player of unparalled depth. His travails one hopes are temporary.

  9. mr.undercover
    December 8, 2015

    Messi’s recent lack of form shouldn’t bring any worries. Its just a matter of time untill he come back to his best. Am seriously more concerned about suarez and neymar’s form, messi’s returns may diminishes their creativity role and the whole thing will go back to Leo to preside. That means less creative neymar and less flair of magic and will turns to a more tap-in goal machine like the previous season. Suarez will have to press the defence to create space for messi and neymar. So I hope if they share the role of creativity between them, and that’s will be significant and hard to defend for opponents

  10. Jim
    December 8, 2015

    Guys, in three weeks Messi will be back to match fitness and the front three will be working as before. Don’t know why anyone is worrying about his effect on Neymar. Last season Messi curbed his natural tendencies to become provider as well and we were unplayable. We shall be again. We are incredibly lucky that they have struck up what seems to be a genuine selfless friendship. That doesn’t happen in football. I also for one wouldn’t be too upset if Neymar curbed his dribbling a little. His style is going to lead to injuries and dribbling is always more effective if you don’t expect it so you lay the groundwork, as Messi does, by spending most of the time just moving the ball round before hitting the explosion button.

    Messi is doing the sensible thing and playing his way back in. Not sure when a pensive moment getting off a plane, tired, becomes a moment to be concerned about. I’m sure the advice has been to go easy for the next few weeks till the knee gets back its strength and we were coasting in the last game. No way he could expect the loss of a late goal to a simple long ball over the top. I’m more concerned, as usual, with why that happened than Messi finding his way back. Last year I was concerned we had the mix wrong in the team. The last three matches have got me the calmest I’ve been in years !

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