Some call it being “in the zone,” others say they were just “feeling it.” Both are used to describe something best described as a state of grace. Whatever it was, on Tuesday Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez were textbook examples of it.
We forget that the game we love is really, really hard, even at a level dismissed by many as not even worth paying attention to. An expensive transfer comes in, doesn’t make the grade immediately and we scoff and snark, forgetting what it means to be human, forgetting how much we suck at stuff, forgetting everything about walking into a room and having no idea what the hell to do, forgetting the empathy necessary to make us understand basic human inadequacy.
In speaking to a journalism class once, my answer to the question “How to be a great journalist,” was a simple one. “Come to work, be fabulous, go home. Then come back the next day and do it again.” Seems easy even as we know how hard it is to be even good, much less fabulous. This is why a favorite Buddhist saying comes to mind: “No matter what you did, you did your best.” The result is the absolute. Success or failure is immaterial, as is motivation and focus. The result is, and if you could have done better, you would have.
We often — too often — define athletes by their apogee. That game in which they scored a bunch of goals, achieved that state of grace, becomes how we think of them, how we assess them. Statisticians wag fingers at us, and suggest that we look at the arc of a season, of a career, of a period of time. Michael Jordan has a career per-game scoring average of 30.2 points. That means that every night, every game, 82 times per NBA season, Michael Jordan can be relied upon for 30 points.
The mind reels. It’s like he spent the bulk of a playing career in a state of grace, making a game that is on the face of it impossible, look easy while facing off against the best examples of professionals that the game had to offer, in opposition. Thirty points per game. Here’s something even more astonishing: Jordan’s career average for the playoffs was thirty-three points per game. An elevated state of grace?
We see minnows muster everything they have and defeat a big club, and we wonder why they are minnows if they can play like that, why can’t they do it every week. But states of grace are rare. Even athletes can’t explain them. When a player is interviewed after a game, what they usually say is, “I was just feeling it. I can’t explain. It just felt like everything that I wanted to do, I could do.”
These states of grace are why we watch the game, because we watch sport to be elevated and entertained. We sit in front of our televisions or computer screens not only wanting our team to win, but wanting to be elevated by the experience. When great goals or plays happen, social media buzzes like a live wire. It’s electric, and our reactions to it are the same. DID YOU SEE THAT??!! We have been elevated, and wanting to share that joy is a natural human reaction.
It is often said that great players reserve great performances for key moments. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is a nice way to distill that notion. On Tuesday, Argentina and Chile were in trouble, both facing formidable opponents who could do damage to their hopes of making the World Cup, a tournament that can define a player’s career. The teams of Messi and Sanchez had to win. Each of their teams scored three goals, Messi and Sanchez were each involved in all three goals. Messi scored one and assisted two, while Sanchez scored two and made a key run/pass for the third.
The first Argentina goal came from a free kick, from a typically dimwitted Colombia foul. There wasn’t any question about who would take the kick. As Messi strode to the ball, everything was the same. There was no inclination that anything spectacular was about to happen, but because Messi’s history is studded with extraordinary moments, everybody gets out the camera because that’s what you do. He took three steps, two to wind up and the third struck the ball, a shot that swerved and dipped, clearing the wall and striking the underside of the crossbar before nestling into the back of the net as though it belonged there, just past the desperate lunge of the Colombian keeper. It was perfection. The Argentina coach could be seen, talking to his assistants and gesticulating in a way that you like to think was, “What the hell was that? How did that just happen?” His assistant responds, “No idea, Boss. It’s just what Messi does.”
The second Argentina goal came as Messi took a defender, ran, faked, stopped and burst into action again, delivering a perfect pass between defenders off the dead run, right onto the head of a teammate, who nodded home. The defender was probably reassured at the beginning, because Messi was running parallel to the goal. “Whew! He isn’t running at the goal. I’ve done my job … crap.” Again, the pass was struck off the dead run. We take what Messi does for granted, because he is so extraordinary, but you try running with a ball at your feet and, with no backlift as part of your stride, kicking that ball for about 25 yards onto a spot. No, and hell no. Messi just did it.
The third Argentina goal was Messi again. A teammate lost the ball and gave up on it, choosing laziness over effort. Messi darted in to nip the ball from the defender and continued his run into the Colombia box, behind a defense that was already moving into attack as its team chased the match. Messi calmly slid a pass past one man, a moment that made you think he missed, but the ball was really for the player running onto the ball, who slammed it home.
All three moments were singularly absurd, the game at its pinnacle at the feet of the best player in the game. But they might have been topped by events in Chile, where Sanchez put on a show.
Chile’s state was as dire as Argentina’s. Something had to happen to help them win this match against the mighty Uruguay. What happened was for 90 minutes, Sanchez became the player that so many predicted he would become with more regularity, rather than the circling, dithering genius who outthinks himself and produces as many groans of exasperation as bleats of joy. Not this day.
The first Chile goal found Sanchez with the ball at his feet. As the most dangerous player on his team, he made a run, a dynamic, angular assault on the Uruguay defense that caused alarm bells. Everything slid in his direcion, and Sanchez spanked a perfect pass to his teammate, who found the open man for the goal. Key passes are one of those stats we like to bandy about. There was even a category, the pre-assist, created for the times players such as Messi or Iniesta make the pass that leads to the assist that creates the goal. Xavi was a master of this, as well. The art of the pre-assist isn’t just the pass, but the movement. The player has to embody enough danger that it causes a shift. A player such as Ivan Rakitic can’t do a proper pre-assist because the defenders don’t care a whole lot what he does when he has the ball, because they’re all watching Messi.
The second Chile goal was another dose of magic, and the result of an assist from a throw. A basic throw-in fell to Sanchez who let it bounce, spun off a defender then laced a half-volley that flew past the keeper on the near side. Should the keeper have done better? That’s like asking if, at a surprise party, should you have been photographed with that “Derrrrr!” face. We respond to the completely unexpected in fascinating ways. Sanchez’s goal was not only audacious, but absurd, something that few players think about. He had an open teammate in an excellent shooting position at the top of the box. Sanchez was at an oblique angle, fronted by a pair of defenders, the keeper covering the near side. No attacker in his right mind tries that shot, from that angle, at that time, off a throw in. 2-0, Chile.
The third Chile goal was the embodiment of everything wonderful about the game of football, as well as those nebulous notions such as “wanting it more,” blablabla. A teammate struck a long pass to Sanchez, who knocked the ball forward to give himself space to run into. He was bracketed by a pair of Uruguayan defenders, one of who grabbed his arm, trying to take the foul as his teammate closed down the other side to cut off the shooting angle, reducing Sanchez to a sliver of space that was covered by the keeper. But he kept running, kept fighting, and as the keeper came out to finish off the job, Sanchez just curled it past him. It was an astonishing goal to cap an astonishing performance, that had the unfortunate timing of happening on the same night that a vastly more popular player and the best player in the game, was almost simultaneously having his own state of grace.
If you had the pleasure of being able to watch both matches, it was exhilarating. It is exactly what sport is supposed to do, exactly what sport is supposed to make us feel. The only better feeling is our team winning. People chafed at the performances of both teams, saying they didn’t play well, in the theoretical abstract. So what. Theory is not exhilarating. That Messi free kick or that Sanchez bull run is. Deal with it.
On Tuesday, we saw the beautiful game at its most beautiful. In this era of civilians sounding like coaches as they talk about formations, it’s easy to forget that we watch the game because of athletes, because of those outsized personalities and performances that give us goosebumps, that make us forget about our normal lives. States of grace can be contagious, which might be the most wonderful part of all.