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.