Lionel Andres Messi is inextricably linked with FC Barcelona in a way that makes fools, hysterical, blinkered, agenda-waving fools out of anyone suggesting that he would voluntarily leave this club.
From the kid whose contract was created on a napkin, the link to a club that paid for his growth hormone treatments was formed. No, it wasn’t altruism, but rather the steadfast belief that this tiny thing was a player that nobody had seen the likes of. He debuted with the first team at age 16, and has grown up before our eyes.
But he is also Argentine, and plays for his national team. And if club has had the ultimate success, time and again, country has come up short, time and again. In many ways, a player, even one as completely linked to a club team as Messi, can escape those shackles with a simple phone call to his agent. But the country is forever. The burden is heavier, which is probably why Messi always seems older, more serious when wearing the famous blue and white striped shirt. Yet it’s only today, in the wake of a rather remarkable interview, that we can say Leo Messi is a man.
Not in the chronological sense, or in any other tangible sense. I mean a man in the way that Carles Puyol was, that Xavi was, this terra-stomping fiend that if cut, would bleed blaugrana from one arm, and albiceleste from the other. We could all see it coming via the little things, from sticking up for Neymar in a contretemps to getting in a Roma player’s face. The facade that was all stoicism as he was kicked, on and off the pitch, was eroding like a crust that cracks and lets sunshine explode from its core.
One headline reads, “Lionel Messi blasts Argentina critics in foul-mouthed rant.” Those headlines miss the point.
We don’t want our players to be human. We want them to be human, but not Human, with all of the irritabilities, frailties and flaws that make us all so limited, so … human. We want perfect goals, perfect families, championships and consistent excellence until, like Xavi, they stroll a confetti-festooned path to their next step in life, flanked by trophies and buoyed on love.
Messi has been all of those things, even when he had absolutely no reason to be. As Pepe plowed his Achilles tendon like a farmer preparing soil for crops, he got up, lined up the free kick and played on. He was stoic as Argentina came up short in final after final, let down by the failures of others on the big stage, even as he worked until his shirt was soaked with the tangible signs of his toil.
And finally, it all came out:
“I still hear criticism over the national team. I say ‘Fuck you’ we got to the final and didn’t lose in the quarterfinals.”
There are many more quotes in the interview, which is here, but none that made me say, as did many other culers, “Man I hope those quotes are real.” Why? Because there is a necessary step in the evolution of Messi that we still haven’t seen, which is full humanity, in the way that someone rips open their chest to reveal a beating heart. As Shakespeare wrote in “Merchant of Venice,” “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Messi hasn’t. All of this stuff happened, the blame, the criticism from Argentina national team supporters, the supposition that unlike Maradona, Messi doesn’t have what it takes to single-handedly drag his teammates to greatness. Messi was pricked, time and again, and yet didn’t bleed. He just put on the shirt and went to work, because that’s what workers do. His teammates supported him publicly, coaches supported him, but Messi was stoic, until now.
“I get annoyed by the people who attack you without thinking.”
If any player suspends the ability to think, to be rational, it’s Messi. He does things with the ball that reduce humans to dolphin noises and grinning. Messi is, by his very nature, irrational. You can think about what he does, yet it doesn’t make sense. Yet his meaning is clear: think about what the team has done, think about the coaching merry-go-round and personnel complexities, think about everything, carping about his not singing the anthem, about the calm way he goes about his business, think before you talk crap. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
But these aren’t the petulant rants of a player who has finally had enough. Rather, these are the thoughts of a Man, who has two sons and a woman he loves. There are things more important in his world, that has reduced football to the game that it well and truly is. No more matches, PlayStation and Legos. And grown-ass men put away foolish things, which means setting the record straight, striding into the glare of expectation and criticism in a way that makes it clear that he hears it, and doesn’t really care, because he feels how he feels.
“I won’t sing the national anthem on purpose. I don’t need to sing it to feel it. Every person feels it in their own way.”
Messi is one of the captains of FC Barcelona, but Iniesta is the Capita. When Iniesta goes, Messi will be next. It will be a team vote as it so often is, and it will be a landslide. Why? Because he is living up to his name. He has become a lion. Puyol ripped off the armband and roared after he scored a goal. Messi grabbed the crest, perched directly above his heart, and ran to exult with teammates and supporters.
With such actions, and with the interview that was released, Messi became wonderfully, gloriously imperfect. “I’m here, we kick ass, and screw you.”
At 28, Messi is a player that is moving into his next phase, again with echoes of Michael Jordan, who as he aged in the cruel context of a game that wants to discard its titans even before they reach 30, slid back. More jump shots, three-pointers, a rounded game that no longer relied on slashing, driving and dunking. Likewise, Messi is passing, moving and influencing matches in ways that don’t involve directly scoring a goal, even as they often lead to goals. This is often called an athlete’s mature phase, in that way implying the knowledge that we have as grownups. “Why do that, when I can do this?”
He’s more complete as a person, just as he is more complete as a player. Baring his heart is, whether planned or not, part of Messi’s very public maturation process. And even for the neutral observer, it’s pretty cool to watch.