A holiday gift from BFB: Messi comparison liberation

A lack of bias is liberating. It lets you study something from an emotional reserve, a place where even as the passionate scream at you that you don’t understand, it isn’t that you don’t understand. It’s that the view is different.

Writing about football with a journalist’s perspective is difficult, especially when it concerns the team that you love. You aren’t a fan of any players, even as their exploits can move you, touch you in ways like they touch even the most passionate supporter.

Not being a fan of any player is also liberating. It also lends — hopefully — a little bit of heft to what comes next, this Christmas Eve gift to you in the form of some freedom: Messi isn’t better than Ronaldo. He isn’t better than Ronaldo because for that to be true, there has to be a point of comparison. There isn’t.

You can stop bristling at charts and statistical analyses, stop tilting at windmills in the form of “best of” player rankings and the like and awards that he didn’t win, stop trotting out statistics that support your contention. You can stop it all, because there is no comparison. Further, anyone who thinks that there is really isn’t worth taking at all seriously.

Luis Enrique is a savage. He was as a footballer and he is as a coach. He doesn’t have time for niceties or making anyone feel better. People assume that he has it in for various players, when he doesn’t care about anything except winning. Aleix Vidal is playing more because he is sucking less. There wasn’t any doghouse, just pure quality. Luis Enrique gives about as much of a damn as the honey badger.

In a recent interview, Luis Enrique, on the incessant Messi and Ronaldo comparisons, said simply enough, there isn’t any comparison, even if you drag out stuff like the “Melon d’Or.” It was brilliant because it laid waste to everything, all the hot takes, all the statistical analyses, all of it. It said that someone might think one player or the other is better because they have acquired a gilded bauble, but a savage who cares about nothing more than winning is here to tell you: there is no comparison.

Luis Enrique is right.

My respect for Cristiano Ronaldo is immense. He is a brilliant footballer and a magnificent goal scorer. But Messi is something completely different. At times, they aren’t even playing the same game. This isn’t a knock on Ronaldo. Not at all. It’s just that even at his most magnificent, Ronaldo could never do what Messi did. Nobody in the game could, and that includes Maradona.

Yes, Maradona had great dribbles, great matches and has World Cup gold to brandish in support of those who say that Messi isn’t his equal. Immaterial. But here’s the biggest problem with any efforts to compare Messi to Ronaldo or anyone else: art and the unquantifiable effect that it has on the human soul.

There is an opera by Francis Poulenc, called “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” It tells the story of the Martyrs of Compeigne, Carmelite nuts who were guillotined rather than renounce their faith. The climax of the opera is, of course, the scene where the nuns, singing in unison, march to the scaffold. As the sound of the blade falls, repeatedly, the chorus of voices is reduced by one. It is an absolutely heart-wrenching moment. I can’t watch it, I can’t deal with it, I can’t listen to it.

How do you explain that effect to someone? When you look at a piece of art that is beautiful, sufficiently so as to render you speechless, how can you answer the tears in your eyes? There is no explanation for it. You can fall back on painterly dissection or art historical context, but it’s a bunch of blablabla that doesn’t and can’t quantify the effect that art has on us.

That’s Messi.

“See, he scored x goals and Ronaldo … ” So what. Messi statisticians now have something called the pre-assist, yet another plank in the platform that attempts to objectively explain why Messi is better than Ronaldo. But I don’t need any of that. All I need is YouTube clips of goals — Getafe, Bayern, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid, Espanyol — the visual evidence that magic exists. Statistics don’t make magic make sense. When a great illusionist performs a trick so remarkable that it makes you angry because you KNOW dude didn’t just make a human being vanish, but where the HELL is the person? Dammit! The trick can be explained, but it doens’t help. It’s the accomplishment.

That’s Messi.

You can’t even explain his goals, which is part of the problem. So people reduce Messi and Ronaldo to goals, or some other statistical notion, but Messi exists in the realm of magic. It’s why you needn’t bother. It isn’t a question of science, it’s a question of art and feeling. That said, it doesn’t mean that Messi’s vast superiority is subjective. It’s objectively subjective, a lot like the arguments that Larry Bird or Magic Johnson were equal to, or better than Michael Jordan. No. Nobody was, for the same reason nobody compares to Messi.

When you look at something and exhale when it’s over, that’s the quality that scribes call “breathless.” You’re watching and wondering, marveling. You can’t believe what you’re seeing, yet there it is. How can we quantify that? We can’t. No statistic can explain what it’s like to see Messi move, the improbability of it all.

Ronaldo is gorgeous. Face, hair, abs. He leaps, runs and slashes through the game with long strides, a being that not only is superior — he looks superior. You see him face off against a defender, and even aesthetics are in his favor. His stepovers are flamboyant, even when he knows he is just doing them because that is what Ronaldo does. He scores goals in quantities that would be absurd if not for that squat Argentine bloke who eschews the crossover for the stop and drop, that shoulder dip that you know is coming but can’t do anything about. What if this time it’s not real and he keeps going? Jerome Boateng probably had that internal dialogue before toppling like a sequoia. Lots of players do. Messi doesn’t rum as much as chop, like an armadillo capering among lions.

Lionel Messi doesn’t make sense except in that emotional realm where things don’t make sense because they can’t be explained. So how can anything be compared to that? Luis Enrique was right. Give all the trophies and player of the years that you like. They vex Messi fans, and they shouldn’t because there isn’t a comparison. It’s almost like Messi is a footballer from another planet, where he isn’t bound by the rules of Earth. So when he doesn’t win Earthly awards, who cares?

You have never heard me argue about Messi vs Ronaldo, and you never will, because there is no argument. It’s impossible to explain why there is no argument, but there is no argument.

People are fond of saying, and proving, the adage “I know what I know.” And it’s accurate because it can’t be disproved. “I know what I know” is an absolute. You know Messi is better. I know Messi is better. The people who voted for Ronaldo in some best player of the year contest know Messi is better. The Melon d’Or voters know Messi is better. Everyone who plays, watches, writes about and follows football knows Messi is better for the simple reason that nobody can be compared to him. Even dyspeptic scribes like me, viewing from a steely reserve in which we evaluate Messi just like any other player, have moments where we just sit, slack-jawed, fuming because he did it to us, too. We sat in our seats in the theatre as he pulled off the trick and dammit, how did he DO that?

You can’t explain it, I can’t, none of us can. That is what makes the comparisons pointless. You have to make Messi make sense, and he doesn’t.

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Written by:

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.

18 Comments

  1. Jim
    December 25, 2016

    Sorry to jump off topic so soon, Kxevin, but I’m just heading off for family getogether so won’t be on for a while. Just like to take the chance to wish everyone what they wish themselves this Christmas , whether you celebrate it or not.

    A genuine thanks to Kxevin, Isaiah and all who keep this space going. It’s genuinely appreciated although I might come across as a cantankerous old sod at times !

  2. Jim
    December 25, 2016

    Well, well . . .

    Barcastuff ‏ : Luis Enrique wants to bring back Thiago Alcantara (25) from Bayern.

    On another note, it’s about time we got rid of this f’ ing year. Now George Michael has gone . What a voice . . .

  3. Alex
    December 25, 2016

    Merry Christmas to all !
    I am a long time reader of your articles.
    Actually, I have a question for you. Whenever I try to explain someone about Messi’s greatness, they use his international career as a yardstick and how he has never won international trophies to prove he is not the best. How do I convince them to look beyond the stats and trophies and see Messi for the magical moments he provides ?
    Also a fun question for you, who do you see as the better player between Cryuff and Messi or between Ronaldinho and Messi ?

  4. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    December 26, 2016

    .
    YES. WE KNOW. But that isn’t the problem.
    We know messi is better. In ALL aspects.
    We know he is incomparable. Least of all to cristi.

    BUT.
    The history books will show that they were close. neck to neck almost in terms of numbers.
    Yes, the people who watched them will KNOW. They will know that messi produced magic consistently. But what after 50 years?

    To be a barca fan and a culer is to seek constant gratification and acknowledgement for beauty and art. This is something that guardiola barca teams suffered constantly. We never wanted a great performance sullied.

    Messi is the best and should forever be regarded as the best. A player on another level. It just sucks to see the world rewarding lesser players judging them to be the best. The frustration with these awards is the unfair-ness of it all. What ever happened to correctness and common sense. How can we be living in a world that wishes for someone like donald trump to lead the world’s most influential country?

  5. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    December 26, 2016

    .
    This is my point –
    History is being written in front of our very eyes. And it is incorrect.
    We have every right to be enraged at something that will be perceived as the truth by our grandchildren, their generation and after.

    Who cares? I hear you say. And THAT, btw is the best argument against the one I’m making. But if one isn’t invested passionately, doesn’t care, that kinda defeats the point of enjoying sport, no?

    I care. And I can’t do anything about it. That’s the point.
    I hear you on being liberated by not caring about players,
    But that only makes you a different kind of a fan.
    I am the kind of fan that is distressed by events not transpiring as they should.

    It is more suffering.
    It is the way of the Culer.

    • Problem
      December 26, 2016

      That’s really, really sad, if you’re not being able to enjoy the game without Messi receiving the acknowledgement of L’Equip. I can easily say that I don’t care about Messi not getting a Golden Ball because that’s simply not the point of any of this. Witnessing him pull off the most amazing feats of footballing skill is the point, so that’s what I care about, not the recognition, not his personal success measured by some other people, but the greatness that I can watch day in, day out, everything that he lays out there on the pitch, because by seeing it, I know he’s the greatest and no matter how the media measures greatness by handing out awards every year is going to change that. Messi’s legacy has been recorded and can be viewed and reviewed time and time again, so anyone who really cares to find out who was truly the best, even ages from now, will be able to see for themselves. If they still somehow come to the conclusion that Messi wasn’t miles ahead of everyone else, then that’s their problem, not mine. All this talk about “suffering” and “seeking gratification” and all that nonsense… jeez, I really hope you’re just being overly dramatic for some reason, because if your own enjoyment of Barça’s football can be ruined by the way it is perceived by others is just terribly sad.

      • *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
        December 26, 2016

        What’s ‘really really sad’ is how you’ve latched onto one line and proceeded to know how i enjoy football. That is really far fetched my friend. Anyhow, lets all enjoy our club and football the way we want to.
        My limited point was that history will show that there was a time when football was dominated by two different type of players – but almost at par, and this to me is very far from the truth.

        • RT
          December 27, 2016

          I really hear you Dumangoli, and can relate to your frustration. It’s “just football” but of course we are and should be invested in the truth. We see this incredible beauty and we want (we demand) that the world acknowledge it. It’s painful and frustrating when people don’t get it!

          I also understand Kxevin’s point and “Problem” above. Sometimes I’m that kind of fan too. I don’t care, none of this matters. I just enjoy Messi and Barca as much as I can in the moment, But I’m not always this type of fan.
          “I am the kind of fan that is distressed by events not transpiring as they should.” Yeah, this made me smile because I understand perfectly. In fact, this is what makes this blog so valuable to me. To have the writers (and commenters) put things into perspective so beautifully. It never fails to make me less distressed!

      • *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
        December 27, 2016

        And please refrain from dismissing others’ comments as nonsense.
        I am being polite and as thoughtful as i can be in my posts.
        I wish you’d show some class by commenting without putting down people.
        Apt name you have.

  6. RT
    December 27, 2016

    Hi Kxevin and others,

    I’m a long-ish time lurker on this site, and finally decided to register. First, I want to thank Kxevin for writing these beautiful (and yes, life-affirming) articles that make our enjoyment of football so much more complete. This article is amazing!
    And I’d also like to thank the regular commenters here, whose insight and knowledge always give me so much to think of.

    Happy holidays to all!

  7. Jim
    December 27, 2016

    Thank you, Santa !

    From Barcastuff: Xavi (ex-Barca) has been called up by Catalonia coaches Gerard Lopez (also Barca B coach) & S.Gonzalez to face Tunisia on Dec 28 [md]

  8. raj
    December 28, 2016

    Congratulations Kevin for this mind blowing piece of writing. Really puts into words all those intangible things I feel when I see Messi play. I should say this applies to Iniesta and many others as well (though not at the same level as Messi), that intangible quality that should make statisticians contemplate suicide.

    And what a great comment space we have, the best! DUMANGOLIs counter-points to Kevins arguments above are worth an article themselves.

    Not to mention all the regular contributors. Thank you all for giving me something that matches Barca football in quality.

    Lets try and keep this place as clean and insightful in future as well. Happy New Year.

    ps: for the record, Fuck 2016.

    • *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
      December 28, 2016

      Thank you for them kind words Raj.
      I actually have written a little essay on the nature of fandom and the culer conflict. Perhaps if you guys are interested, I could send it over to the mods if they find it worthy of publishing here.

  9. December 28, 2016

    Happy holidays, everyone. Been away enjoying mine, so welcome to new readers and new voices. Pull up a chair and settle in.

    A few things:

    — We can disagree, but it should never be personal. Always remember that it’s millionaires in short pants capering about a manicured lawn, to keep things in perspective.

    — I can appreciate people who crave affirmation from one and all that Messi is the best. But I don’t need that. As noted above, it’s clear to anyone who pays attention to the game, whether they say it or not. Despite the views of many here, I am not a fan of beling devil’s advocate, or contrary for the sake of being contrary. The difference is clear. Statistics will argue that there is a point of comparison. It’s why you have to watch them. Then there isn’t a doubt.

    History only rarely judges things as we feel they ought to be. Luis Enrique’s point with the “Melon d’Or” comment is that a gilded bauble isn’t going to change reality. It’s a sound one. But again, not being a fan of Messi gives me a different view. He can never win another Melon d”Or for perpetuity and my view of his talents won’t be altered. As for the veracity of said bauble, Iniesta has never won one. So …

    — Interesting question, Alex. I think that Messi is the best player, period. More interesting questions come about who I most prefer to watch (Ronaldinho) or who is the first one I would pick if building a team from scratch (Cruijff).

    Hope everyone is well, and didn’t eat too much over the holidays, even if I did. Can’t wait for my personal next season to begin on 1 January. I feel like an overstuffed turkey!

  10. TITO
    December 29, 2016

    You can’t compare things that cant be compared.
    Two different players, one miles ahead from the other in terms of football and what the game actually is and means.
    Ronaldo is a goalscorer, and that’s it. Nothing more than that.
    If somebody wants to compare him via that statistic data, as goals scored, than compare him say to Romario, who has more goals scored than him (i think).
    Who is a better player? Zidane or Ronaldo? Ronnie or Ronaldo? Original Ronaldo or C. Ronaldo?
    They scored less, but Ronaldo is incomparable to them, just because they represent football as a game.
    When i try to talk with someone over this nonsense, all i hear are goals and goal and goals scored, and there’s where i stop discussing.
    In that moment i feel like i’m talking to a 10 year old kid, and it’s pointless to go on.

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