Messi: Ultimate team player wins another solo accolade

There has been an awful lot written about Messi, but in the wake of that eye-gogglingly silly Ballon d’Or business, a few things are a bit clearer about a player of whom we know so little.

In taking care of so much business yesterday — ending the “who’s best” debate with a fifth golden bauble and committing his future to Barcelona, Messi has never seemed more mature, more grounded. He even eschewed the late-1980s sofa upholstery tuxedo for a very elegant black ensemble, unpredictable even in his sartorial choices.

Is it a matter of him now having the game on his own terms, or has the game has assumed a different place for him, in his life? This is the first BdO ceremony I have seen a bit of, even the four times Messi has won before, where he hasn’t looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, hasn’t looked a bit uncomfortable amid the unctuous glad handing and shiny, tanned hides. That “somewhere else” used to be kicking a football. But now any of us would bet the house that it’s romping with his sons.

A friend who became a new father said to me, essentially, “You can’t imagine what happens when you hold that kid for the first time. Your life gets a purpose, and everything else is secondary.”

Twice now Messi.has had that moment where you hold, and look into the eyes of a life that you are responsible for, that is your everything. It has to have made him different in significant ways about which we can only speculate, that we maybe think that we can see on the pitch, in the self-serving manner writers have in creating fantasy from whole cloth.

Most remarkable about Messi is that he has become the ultimate team player. That he is also the best individual player in the game only seems incongruous. It’s a conversion that makes his desire to win all the more naked, like a beating heart laid bare. Over at Grup 14, Diana Kristinne translated a delightful interview with Xavi. In it, he talks about Messi and his desire to win:

Nothing bothers him more than defeat. I recall he was inconsolable the day he missed a penalty against Chelsea and we were eliminated from the Champions League. But he was also upset when he missed it against Manchester City, even if we won 3-1. And you go and you tell him that it’s fine and he tells you “No, it’s not. I failed.”

It’s worth spending a match watching Messi, and only Messi. Ignore the ball. Watch Messi. He walks, he trots, he watches, he places himself in spots that make sense three passes down the road. To answer the “why is he standing there” question, think of the pitch as a billiard table, and the players are the cushions. It’s weird, almost otherworldly. It’s also a quality that every phenomenal player has. Hockey fans lucky enough to have seen Gretzky understand it. NBA folks who watched the Jordan Chicago Bulls understand it. It isn’t seeing into the future as much as understanding the game, and immediately being able to parse things in a way that nobody else can, then having the ability to act on that knowledge.

As a part of the evolution of that team force, in many ways it speaks volumes that Messi’s absolute best statistical year, in which he obliterated records left and right, was a year of team failure, just as there is eloquence in peak Messi coming at a time when he has playmates who are, though certainly not equals, the best that the game has to offer at their positions. There is freedom in that for a player who demanded from the board that runs the club to which he has pledged the rest of his career, that he be given worthy running mates.

He got them, and now look. Messi is the best everything at Barça. He’s the best passer, the best scorer, the best shooter, would probably be the best pressing defender if he decided to do that. He has taken it upon himself to improve his game in a way that makes him more useful to the team.

Superstars are usually selfish. They believe that, at all times, they are the best option. But superstars become transcendent when they rise above that. Jordan became truly great when he shifted from “my supporting cast” to “my teammates.” When a great player truly subsumes his majesty to the collective, he shines even brighter.

Messi, in all of his glitter bombing individual brilliance is a force, a demanding being with a demanding set of requirements. Michael Jordan wrecked teammates psychologically, grinding the weaklings up in the crucible of his excellence. He used to call Will Perdue “Vanderbilt,” because he wasn’t good enough to come from Purdue. He used to whip passes to Luc Longley, daring the Australian center to have the quality to corral them. If you were good enough, you excelled with him. If you came up short, he left you on the side of the road like excess baggage. The team didn’t have space for passengers, not if it was going somewhere.

Some have been understanding for some time now how Jordanesque Messi is. It took the club long enough to figure it out. We hear the stories of how losing rips his heart out, how he hates to lose at anything. As Messi polishes his fifth BdO, guess how many NBA MVP awards Jordan won? Ask me what makes Messi great, and it isn’t the goals or the runs, but the sweat and the tackles, the pinpoint passes, the way he apologizes as he didn’t make the most of a teammate’s effort to get him the ball. A “mature” superstar is psychologically aged, rather than chronologically.

There are almost certainly any number of reasons that Messi seemed so calm at the BdO ceremonies. And even as he knows that at this point in the career of his chief rival for the ultimate individual prize, his main competition will most likely come from his own team’s dressing room, there’s the feeling that such a thing is okay. The biggest thing will be, should that intramural rival manifest himself, that the feats performed in a way that warrants that ultimate individual prize, go to help the team excel.

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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.

28 Comments

  1. January 13, 2016

    Kevin rightly says it that Messi is both the best team and individual player.

    There seems to be a pattern in the post Balon dor articles in the media.
    – Messi and Cr7 are both geniuses and we should enjoy both (doesnt matter the obvious gap between the two and no mention about that at all), hardly are there any articles which talk only about Messi. Last year, while writing about CR7’s 3rd Bdor, nobody wanted to mention Messi though.
    – Both dont do anything for the national team (doesnt matter one is a WC runner up and have won youth WC and Olympics)
    – Why Balon dor is only for goal scorers (doesnt matter that Messi is the best player even when he doesnt score, very few dare to mention the 25 minutes against City)
    -Messi is immensely helped by Neymar and Suarez (as if its a one way traffic -doesnt matter that they too are helped by the presence of Messi, no one wonders if another super star , say CR7 or Zlatan would have welcomed them both (or two other super star players) with such ease as Messi did)

    I really feel a lot of media are fed up of Messi. They try their best to take away something from him. Unlike Kevin here, most do not even mention what an exemplary team player he is.

    • Davour
      January 13, 2016

      I agree with you, from what I’ve read. It’s ridiculous that reaching two consecutive finals is portrayed as failure, more or less, by many. Media (and many others) are stuck in the comparison based on goals, but mostly the narrative of the comparison – the fight – which seems irresistible to them. Like espnc, who even created a goal-count – ironically during the year where their dominance in this regard has decreased!

      It’s easier, I guess, to continue like this. And Ronaldo is, for some reason, immensely popular. Famous arses often are, I suppose…

      And those 25 minutes… well, who can capture them with words? But someone (Lineker?) tweeted that it probably was the best minutes of attacking football ever displayed on British soil!

    • ChaoticReaper
      January 14, 2016

      Idk. Would you rather take Messi out of the XI or take Neymar and Suarez out of the XI? Or perhaps 2009 Barca, would you rather take out Messi or Xavi and Iniesta? Seems like you can take out Messi for a decent forward and both teams will still function well. However this Barca cannot win title without Neymar and Suarez. I’m sure the same could be said for 2009

  2. January 13, 2016

    Sport reporting that Nolito to Barça is a done deal. Loan, buy obligation in summer for 20m. More to come.

    • Davour
      January 13, 2016

      Hopefully there is also a deal sending Sandro somewhere, then. Not sure how much playing time Nolito will have, but I guess Lucho has earned our trust. If N feels sub is enough for him, as I’m sure he understands, he would be a real asset, of course.

  3. luisthebeast
    January 13, 2016

    Our bench:Pique Busi Iniesta Neymar.Suarez suspended.Last seasons we heard so many times that we have a thin squad.I remember in October when our bench was Sandro Munir Roberto e.t.c people complaining:Oh we dont have bench.Now what?The board is bad?The board that signed Neymar Suarez Macherano Rakitic Bravo Ter Stegen Alba Vermaelen Vidal?Or Lucho hate the youths?Oh that s why he played Munir.Talking only about the sporting project the board is kicking a…s,whether some fans like it or not!!!!!!

  4. luisthebeast
    January 13, 2016

    If Nolito was promoted in 2011 now we would nt need to buy him;-)I blame Lucho;-)

  5. January 14, 2016

    Glad that these anime wrestling matches with Espanyol are over.

    It was a good decision by LE to rest those who could have caused more tension – Pique, Alba, Busquets, Neymar.. He left Turan and Masche, to deal with something if at all.

    That pass from Messi for the first goal, I would be ready to retire after one such pass.
    I think Munir will be kept, and Sandro will leave on loan or whatever.

  6. luisthebeast
    January 14, 2016

    Al Pacino said it:Justice for all!!!!Finally!!!!!

    • Jim
      January 14, 2016

      Yup, RM and AM get two window transfer ban for same offence as us.

  7. luisthebeast
    January 14, 2016

    Jim i will spend my day on twitter today with a big smile in my face reading Barca fans that cursed and killed the board back then,saying now that the two of madrid would be fine,that the ban is a joke,that the rules must change and all that;-)Funnu times:-P

  8. January 14, 2016

    Timing is different. Lessons learned. Barça ban came in April, was given suspensive effect due to insufficient time for appeals process to play out before summer window. Different here. Atleti busy in winter window, anticipating.

  9. Davour
    January 14, 2016

    With this ban, they’d better turn Isco and James to happy guys again, or it might be troublesome, relying on an ageing CR, a distracted Karim and an injury-prone Bale… If they manage this, I don’t see too much of a problem for them, they have a pretty big squad, and maybe this will – unfortunately for us – turn out to add calm to the current team. Who knows.

    Think Atleti are pretty set, too, adding several youngsters this season.

    On the game yesterday: 90 minutes hoping nobody would be injured… but it was pretty cool to see Messi turning on the engine at one point, after being tackled by Alvaro, showing the pure force at his disposal, forcing another foul… and that pass, executed like it was routine. You are welcome, Munir – who did, must be said, handle it perfectly!

    • January 14, 2016

      Simeone has built an excellent squad. May be not this year, but next year they are going to be real beaters. Kranevitter and Correa would become stars soon.

  10. luisthebeast
    January 14, 2016

    I dont know what they will do tbh.I am not a fan of Simeone and his team.To me is just another version as a coach of Mourinio.I am sure,as example,that if Marcelo Bielsa was the coach of Atletiko,they would play amazing football.His Bilbao team was an art piece.And his Marseille side was also so exciting.

    • Davour
      January 15, 2016

      Perhaps. But they would not have won the Liga…

    • January 15, 2016

      While there are similitudes between their teams, there is a HUGE difference between Simeone and Mourinho, which is the actual behavior of the trainers themselves..

    • Jim
      January 15, 2016

      Lev, you live ? Missed your comments.

    • January 16, 2016

      Alive and well, Jim. Mostly lurking on this site, this last half year, silently trolling commenters in my mind (not you, mind you).

      If you decide to come to the Camp Nou for a game this season, let me know and we’ll go for some drinks (levonschuller@gmail.com)

    • Jim
      January 16, 2016

      Not sure I’ll make it this season, Lev. I’m off to visit my daughter who has taken to living in Australia for a year and it has turned into my long delayed retirement holiday. We’re taking the whole month of March and starting with a week in New York before heading off to Vegas, LA and Honolulu before ending up in Sydney for nine or ten days. Will be great but I’ll be on here looking for pubs to watch the matches in. You can begin to imagine how much it will cost.

      On the bright side I should earn enough air miles to be the next Brit to attempt a spacewalk ! ( We have, however, had an introductory conversation about the possibility of using some of them on a trip to Barcelona so you never know. My good lady hasn’t seen Messi live and the prospect appeals to her – either that or wanting to mother Iniesta ) .

      On a business note, gonna watch Villareal tonight to have a good look at Suarez. Haven’t really rated him so far but he’s getting good reports – must be good if LE thinks he’ll get any minutes in our midfield.

  11. luisthebeast
    January 15, 2016

    From what i read in Spain,Qatar deal seems to going for a fail.They dont want to give the money we ask.I dont believe that we can find a sponsor who will pay over 35-40m.With the new deals for Ney and Leo and maybe Busi Raki e.t.c i am afraid the reality will be hard.We must uprise a lot the revenues of the home games but we need a better Camp Nou.For me the board must find a way to sell our games on Internet.I am not expert but if some millions of people can watch in High Quality our games live on their computers or tablets for lets say 5euro the game we would be earn good money.

    • georgjorge
      January 16, 2016

      They alread do that though (https://www.fcbgamepass.com)…

      Maybe that’s the future of high-level football: Excellent football but only a few people who can afford to watch it in the stadium. Though there are people who already prefer the TV experience to seeing it live. I’m not sure how radically the mass migration from stadium to couch (which has already partly taken place in the Premier League I think) will change the atmosphere of the games.

  12. luisthebeast
    January 16, 2016

    Well if we compare stadiums 50 years ago with now,who knows in 50 years how they would have transform….maybe every fan will have his own box with sampaign,food,a tv to watch replays and other luxuries…offcourse the price would be huge…and in 100years maybe we would be have the first game in Mars:-P

  13. Tommy11
    January 17, 2016

    Peeped in to see EE against Sporting, and less twenty minutes in its 4-0. What???????

    • G6O
      January 17, 2016

      They were doing that with Benitez in charge against the weak teams at home too.

      Don’t get distracted by the scoreline. Gijon have been absolutely disastrous in defense, just standing around like training cones.

      Meanwhile the way EE have been playing, a good time would have been able to pick them apart with not that much difficulty — way too many long balls that get intercepted easily and can lead to dangerous counter while the midfield is still not really there the way it should be.

      Let’s wait until February when they have to play someone serious. If they still score so many goals, then we might have a reason to be worried.

    • G6O
      January 17, 2016

      *a good team

  14. Davour
    January 17, 2016

    Messi subbed out of precaution… hamstring discomfort. Let’s hope it nothing; he shouldn’t have played against Espanyol, obviously.

    Busquets is having a quietly wonderful game. Neymar not too quietly… Team will manage some more Messi absence, but pity since he was coming back into his own. Will this affect the Nolito-case, one wonders?

    And Roberto looks good on the left, too. Where doesn’t he, these days?

  15. georgjorge
    January 17, 2016

    Wow.

    The team looked a bit insecure for the first ten minutes. Then they focused – and that was that. Very frustrating for Bilbao to play with ten in the Camp Nou against a focused team and a Neymar/Suarez/Messi on fire. Suarez got some much-needed goals, Sergi Roberto got to practice his new position at left-back. And Neymar continues being the second unplayable forward on our team (I liked how for the fourth goal he was twisting and turning and running while Rakitica just stood there watching and then finally stuck out his foot for the goal).

    A very complete match.

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