We forget how bollocks most attempts to analyze football are, as scribes sit at keyboards and strive to quantify the unquantifiable. How do you analyze a rainbow? How do you analytically quantify events as remarkable as those witnessed today?
The official match chronicle will state, simply enough, ” ’68: Goal Suarez.” It will be accurate, but it can in no way capture a high-wire walk of a goal, in which two of the best players in the game, off a pass from the third, demonstrated that football is about magic. It’s that thing that makes you watch a moment and leaves you reeling, seeing spots like when you get hit in the face with a camera flash — when a perfectly planned surprise leaves you joyful and speechless.
Iniesta took the pass and fought through one challenge, then two, his last act as he hit the turf to slide the ball to Messi, who stops, starts, fakes, gets fouled, keeps going, swivels and slaloms before unleashing a piledriver that was parried by the keeper before Suarez put home the rebound.
” ’68: Goal Suarez.”
The four goals that Barça scored today all had roots in football of the highest order, the kind that only players of a certain caliber can play with other players of that same caliber. Football is a team sport that be elevated by a brilliant individual. It’s the elusive beauty of the thing. Pape Diop clipped Messi during a Barça break. The score was still 1-0 at that moment. From that point on, Messi was different.
We often speak of players performing with the “red mist,” this thing that obscures vision and judgment. What happened with Messi as he lay there on the pitch in the wake of that Diop foul was something quite different. Poets with a free-flowing mind will wonder about the Rage of Messi, felled one last time by a thug from the crosstown rival, wonder about the thing that, like Homer’s Achilles, awakened the hero.
Or being pissed as a crappy foul could have just steeled his determination in a way remarkable for what it means.
Athletes perform to the best of their ability, a yardstick that is always changing, always elusive. Sometimes that best is unstoppable, other times that best is rather ordinary. The best players in Spanish football play in La Liga, the topmost division in Spain. Messi is also in La Liga, but he is different. He is a player whose absolute best is unstoppable. His best is at a level that makes opposing coaches just shrug, as Quique Sanchez Flores did on the Espanyol bench.
In the wake of that Diop foul, Messi, who had been having rather a below-average match to that point, decided to be unstoppable. He destroyed Espanyol for the second. Then he did it again for the third, with another determined, stumbling run that always found the ball glued to his feet, before Alba slotted home. Then he flawlessly controlled a pass of Luis Suarez for the fourth, deftly nutmegging the Espanyol keeper to caress the ball into the net, this sphere that nestled into the fibers at the back of the goal as if put there by its rightful owner.
Lionel Andres Messi is the best player in the game, and for me, the best player to ever play the game. Cristiano Ronaldo just won the Ballon d’Or, and good for him. It sparked endless debates, defenses of Messi, railing against the capricious standards of a now-silly award. But as BeIN broadcaster Ray Hudson says of Messi, “Just watch him.” You don’t need a gilded bauble to understand what you’re seeing, to see a player who takes top professsionals and makes them seem like they aren’t even playing the same game.
That kind of magic obliterates and consumes. Luis Suarez appears to be back in form, scoring a brace. Who’s talking about that? Mascherano was magnificent. So what? Neymar was like this marauding sprite, a player who, as a Twitter associate, Heimo says, is actually the player that Ronaldo’s supporters think the Portuguese is. Okay, but did you SEE what Messi did?
What Messi did to Espanyol was almost violent in its intensity and determination. We can wonder how Diop felt in the locker room after being the catalyzing event, like the Miami Heat young player who was teasing Michael Jordan during an off night for the Chicago Bulls superstar. He said the wrong thing, and Jordan woke up to almost single-handedly destroy the Heat. And that player’s coach, Pat Riley, said to his young charge, don’t ever say anything to Jordan again. If you see him in the hall, just walk by and don’t say anything. It never makes sense to wake a sleeping colossus.
Most fascinating about the four goals is that, for a time, they obliterated all the talk about proper football and The Way. None of them were “Barça goals” in the way that keepers of the flame so cherish. Iniesta going route one for Suarez. Then a broken-field run. And another. Then a pass over distance that led to an intermediate pass over the top.
Yet everyone screamed, cheered and cooed over those goals because they were exquisite, football of the highest order. In a previous post here, the different midfield of the here and now was being discussed, how the midfield used to be Heaven and now it’s Purgatory, a waystation before the ball gets to Heaven in the form of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, a trio of players who can do for themselves. Not a single goal today was a consequence of midfield play, really, even as a midfielder had a hand in two of them.
This Barça horaded possession like a miser hoards money, not only keeping the ball, but challenging Espanyol’s right to it, as if any time that sphere wasn’t being caressed by a Blaugrana foot was an affront to the game. There were remarkable passing sequences, one-twos at high speed that left Espanyol defenders frozen, like people watching players at an exhibition match. It was remarkable.
There are those who will assert that this Barça doesn’t play beautiful football, doesn’t play the game properly. There are others of us who will watch those goals that were scored today, laugh maniacally and hug ourselves with glee. In the luck of the draw that has placed us all here at this time, in a position to be able to marvel at this team and its players, these are heady days.
The final scoreline, even as lopsided as it was, doesn’t fully reflect the dominance displayed by Barça in the Catalan derby. The final scoreline can’t in any way reflect how spectacular the best player in the game was. Neymar had a brilliant match and at the end of the day, few cared as his omnipresent gloriousness was consumed in the flames of a player who only woke up a ways into the second half, then obliterated everything with brilliance.
This is a team game that is played by individuals, some of whom display that thing scoffed at by so many, “Individual brilliance.” But that quality is quite precisely why Messi stands out, why Iniesta is magic, why the acquisitions of Suarez and Neymar were so important. Messi was the best player in the game when he was playing with the likes of Pedro and David Villa, but he didn’t have playmates who could run on the same playground. They were augmentative players, rather than cohorts.
In a memorable outburst, Messi said that he wanted players he could work with and a board committed to providing the best possible platform for the football team to excel. Neymar and Suarez came, and suddenly Messi had playmates. The three are great friends off the pitch because they all understand the symbiotic needs of greatness, how Messi is fantastic, but the other two make him, them and the trio even more fantastic. Neymar to Suarez to Messi to goal. Messi to Neymar to Suarez to goal. In many ways it’s cheating to have those players, being fed the football by Iniesta.
In the wake of the Manchester City/Arsenal match, a commentator ended all the Guardiola hot takes by saying that at City, Guardiola doesn’t have the players that he had at Barcelona. That’s an easy thing to forget. And many of those players are still at Barçelona, still performing at a dizzying level. Busquets is often overlooked, but he’s quietly spectacular. Iniesta is Iniesta. Football is theory. We talk about formations, bandy about numbers and phrases such as “positional play.” Then individuals lay waste to a team game as they have a private cutting contest with their opponents as the victims. Then the greatest of them all decides that it’s time.
When people ask us why we love this game, why we huddle to watch grainy streams on wee screens, why we wake at ungodly hours, why we debate and squabble and chatter on and on about the exploits of a passel of millionaires in short pants, it’s kinda hard to explain.
But just as effective would be to say nothing, and give them the YouTube link to the four goals scored today. Every time a match starts, the air is saturated with possibility, with the potential for something great. This is true whether you support Stoke City or Sevilla or Barça. What we forget until it happens, is how exhilarating it is when possibility becomes reality. And a fanbase is united in disbelief at what it has just witnessed, a collective head shaking, mouths agape.
That’s what happenend today. It was the game at its most beautiful because it was also the game at its most capricious, performed at the highest level by the folks who do it better than anyone. And we got to see it.