“I watched about half of that game yesterday. That penalty kick was incredible!”
This is what a colleague said to me on Wednesday morning, after Argentina dismantled the U.S. in Copa America competition. It’s as eloquent a statement as any you might see on the Messi Effect. Pedants will scoff, say that it wasn’t a penalty kick, etc, etc. But a person who doesn’t give a damn about football, who only knows the game as this thing little Europeans play and that his colleague is nuts for, watched a match.
And here’s the thing: It wasn’t that the U.S. was playing. It was that Messi was playing. Once word got out that Messi would play the group stage match in Chicago as a sub, people started asking me about tickets, and whether they should go. My answer, that “Duh, it’s just about the best national team in the world right in your backyard,” was insufficient, because it was all about Messi. Americans love celebrity. What’s more, Americans love extraordinary things. It has often been said, as a quip, that the U.S. would really do better with royalty, which is funny even as it stings a little bit because of its truth. The celebrity obsession is rather odd.
The decision to hold the Copa America Centerario in the U.S. was a good one in many contexts, even as its overall effect is still to be determined. Football in America is in an odd state. The U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994 and nothing much came from it. Over time, as the U.S. men’s team has gone from joke to legitimate, more people have paid attention to the game. But the real driver of interest in the U.S. is youth soccer. When kids started playing it, and adopting Euro or South American superstars as idols, parents started paying attention. They went to exhibitions and watched on TV. When the U.S. women became the powerhouse that they now are, interest surged further, because Americans love a winner.
The other really cool thing has been the very intelligent strategy adopted by MLS, the American professional league. From franchise placement to controlled growth and a spot on national television, MLS has done extraordinarily well. The average European or South American would scoff in looking at the sliver of market share and viewership the league enjoys, but the picture of sport in America is baseball, American football, basketball, hockey, stock car racing, then the primary sport of someone’s college. For MLS to have gotten the foothold that it has is, in that environment, remarkable. And it isn’t just immigrants and expats that are driving the contextual popularity of the game.
Anecdotes aren’t the only evidence. The 2014 World Cup set viewership records for both ABC, the parent network and ESPN, the host cable network. The final set a record, as did nine other matches. Quite clearly, something is happening with the game in the U.S.
But those people, the ones who know and follow the game, already know who Messi is. Most surprising about my colleague’s Wednesday morning gushing is that he probably doesn’t even know what country Messi hails from, and couldn’t pick an Argentina shirt out of a lineup. But he watched football, and he watched Messi. Argentina had to draw the U.S. in the semi-finals of a tournament that is based in the U.S. There wouldn’t have been the same audience if Argentina had met, say, Ecuador. And Messi destroyed the U.S., along with his Argentina teammates. Zero shots. Period. Not even speculative blasts from distance. Zero shots, and a 0-4 scoreline that could have been more if Argentina was really interested in rubbing noses in it.
MOTM in three matches — he only started two of them — Messi has a flair for the dramatic. The game’s biggest player is delivering transcendent performances not only on a big stage, but a crucial one. There is always the hope that football will become a real sporting player in the U.S., by the governors of the game in this country but also by the international forces, who have visions of money dancing in their heads as they contemplate a nation that large, with that much disposable income. But something had to happen to do that. Messi might be that thing.
The World Cup, viewership boosts aside, wasn’t the thing because that was a TV experience. The matches weren’t here, so the buzz was different. Americans love being able to see their superstars, even ones they don’t quite understand the fame of. They could see That Person, and he delivered. In Chicago, he entered the match in the 60th minute. Less than a half-hour later he had a hat trick, including a sublime free kick, and an assist of casual glory. Those highlights were on U.S. television sporting segments because the Copa was here, and even if we didn’t quite know what the hubbub was, a major international tournament was here, as was the best player in the game. And then he did that. He even makes a lie of the cliche that “Soccer is boring. They never score.” He has helped Argentina score goals in bunches.
As Messi goals go, his Chicago tallies weren’t all that dazzling, more evidence of Messi doing what he does. The semi-final match against the USMNT was different, because American exceptionalism and this country’s love of the underdog combined to make people not understand that the U.S. team didn’t have a chance against Argentina. One friend asked if there was any way that the U.S. could win, and I said “No. They won’t even come close to scoring.” This was difficult for him to understand, because there is an embrace of the underdog, but also a lack of understanding that a U.S. team can be an underdog. “We’re the best, richest nation in the world. So how can we not be the best? I don’t understand.”
Argentina destroyed the U.S., which was no surprise. What was a surprise was that Messi free kick. American sport has an iconography, defined by great athletes doing remarkable things at remarkable times. Michael Jordan took off from the free throw line in a slam dunk contest. Joe Montana’s Super Bowl touchdown pass. It’s electrifying when a great does something transcendent. Even if Americans don’t understand football, they understand that. This makes Messi’s free kick a potentially historic moment in the history of football in America, and that is stunning. What is even more remarkable, and the thing that also has made Messi electric in his presence here, is that he is the exceptional underdog.
Walter Mitty is the classic dreamer, the little man with big dreams. The greatest thing about Messi is that he doesn’t look like a great athlete. He isn’t tall or muscular. He doesn’t leap or run like the wind, nor does he have matinee idol looks. He’s just … this guy, which makes him even more of a phenomenon. Parents can turn to their soccer-playing children and say, “See, if he can do it,” and the child nods. Messi is exceptional, but he is also ordinary. The overall effect and buzz wouldn’t be the same if Ronaldo was doing that stuff in the U.S. because, just look at him. Those abs. That hair. Those legs. Americans would find Ronaldo’s feats cool, but not as cool as Messi’s. To understand this, look no farther than the meteoric rise of Steph Curry.
Curry is a star basketball player and the MVP of the league he plays in. What Curry does, essentially, is shoot the ball better than anyone in the game. He isn’t a giant. He’s kinda thin, chews nervously on his mouthpiece when he isn’t playing, and people absolutely adore him. He’s another example of ordinary exceptionalism, like Messi.
What overall effect the presence of the Copa and Messi will have, long-term, remains to be seen. My colleague might never watch another football match in his life. But on a Tuesday night, he tuned in to watch. And it wasn’t because of the U.S. team. It was because of Messi, a player who is better at what he does than anyone doing anything right now.