When you don’t know what to say or do, you scream.
When a moment happens that is so extraordinary that words can’t form in the haze of your brain, you scream.
FC Barcelona has given its supporters two such moments this season, first with the remuntada against PSG then today, a match that will define being a culer for many. PSG was astonishing, but today — no words. It was the greatest player in the game deciding that today, there would be no losing.
It was his teammates deciding to live up to his high standard, as almost every member of the XI had a key role in what has been, whether you are a neutral, culer or Madridista, the best Classic that anyone can remember in some time.
It is impossible to understand Lionel Andres Messi, impossible to understand how he must see the game. When players are in the zone, they talk about time slowing down, talk about basketball hoops being as big as a lake, about opposing players that seem frozen in time.
It’s like that for Messi all the time, even when he isn’t up to his own standard. This is a player who was elbowed in the mouth, deliberately to my view, who lay on the pitch quite actually gushing blood. He returned, holding gauze to his mouth to stanch the flow, laying out a pass while dabbing at his own blood, which is red, despite those who expected it to glisten, turning into gold as it struck the Bernabeu pitch.
Messi struck the equalizer, then he struck the winner. Both came from unerring lasers that had to find a sliver of space in the atmosphere of a net minder in Keylor Navas, who was having an astonishing day. He struck his 500th goal on the same day that the man who many assert is in his league, Cristiano Ronaldo, failed to lift his team.
Messi scored the winner, removed his shirt and ran over to the stands to hold it up, so that the crowd, the world could see who did this, and the team that he plays for, the club that he has in his heart.
Football takes your emotions and wrecks them, takes your equilibrium and flings it off a psychic cliff before — every now and again — making you weep in exultation at moments that you don’t understand because they go against everything that was supposed to happen.
Real Madrid equalized in the 86th minute, and only two minutes were added. Barça looked at sixes and sevens, being outplayed by opponents who were down to 10 after their captain was shown a deserved red for a leg-breaker aimed at Messi.
The 86th minute. And they kept pressing, kept attacking. My mind was resigned to a 2-2 draw, resigned to hoping beyond hope that someone would do Barça a solid, give some help in the Liga, as this match was done and dusted, another one pulled from the fire by a team that has specialized in thiem this season.
It’s doubtful that any of us thought that helper would be Sergi Roberto, who got off the spit on which he was being roasted by Marcelo long enough for, with about 30 seconds left on the clock, a run, a sinuous, uncertain, stunning, exemplary thing that was like a tightrope walker waiting for a stiff breeze. Surely someone was going to foul him, stopping play and leaving a single, simple set piece left. Surely. But he kept running, head swiveling, looking for danger at first, then looking for options.
He laid the ball to Andre Gomes, the “oh, no, not him” sub who acquited himself better than usual today, the man who, at this instance, became la pausa embodied. He took the pass, and for what seemed an eternity, looked. Then looked some more, then looked again, seeking not only options, but viable ones as Real Madrid rushed back in disarray.
Gomes found Jordi Alba, who knew exactly what to do. Number 10, the player who, in his status as the most dangerous man on the pitch for Real Madrid, just kept moving, kept sliding around in little curves until he popped up in space. Alba found him, Messi didn’t err. Everything was on the line, and a goal made at the feet of a pair of Masia kids put the dragon to the sword on Sant Jordi’s day, in the dragon’s lair. You couldn’t have asked for a better ending to a gripping match that was packed with energy, intensity and high, high drama.
A special word for Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, who kept his team in the match with save after save, play after play, and Keylor Navas, who seemed determined to top Ter Stegen’s efforts at becoming a glory hog. History will record that Messi scored the winner, because history rarely gives net minders the kind of love that Ter Stegen deserved. But diving left, diving right, making an absurd, reflex kick save, his team was in the match because of him, just as Real Madrid could say the same of Navas.
Marcelo was amazing, the key to all the danger that could be mustered by Real Madrid. And Rakitic. Que golazo, as he received the ball and Real Madrid dared him to shoot, gave him space to shoot, allowed the man who is underappreciated because 90 percent of what he does is donkey work, the chance to show what he could do. His piledriver put Barça in the lead, an exemplary moment by an exemplary player.
Spare a thought for Iniesta, who was magnificent today, hauling his aging body up for a match for the ages, one that evinced control, command and silk. Gray temples, aged legs and still he slid around, still they couldn’t get the ball off him. He played a glittering pass that deserved a better fate, ran faster than even he thought himself capable as Barça returned to passing and movement, sliding the ball around the midfield on a day when the trident was missing a tine due to suspension, and another due to poor form.
Busquets was pure evil. He reads a match like no player in the game, understanding that, as Cruijff said, the fastest player isn’t necessarily the fastest on the pitch. But the player with the fastest mind will almost always get there first, because he understands the game.
It was Pique with massive dispossessions, and Umtiti, with interceptions, and one rainbow chip of a pass that brought gasps even as he was unfazed, because it’s just what he does.
All those players, all that glory, all of that effort and it still came down to the feet, the focus, the mind of Messi, who is so far and away the best player in the game that any discussions about it are pointless. Just shrug and walk away. Pressure is a weird thing, the way it makes different players respond. Good players sometimes become great, and greats become geniuses.
And then there’s Messi. Let’s be clear about this: he didn’t win the match by himself, but it would be impossible not to assert that his titanic presence was the reason his team won, the reason everybody lifted themselves up for one more period of inspiration against a team that everyone believed was going to win. They were deeper, they were in better form, were luckier, had a better coach and everything else. Barça was a mess, with an outgoing coach, a team just waiting for the other shoe to drop so that it could hit the reset button.
But the Classic is special, especially for players who are also culer. Messi, Iniesta, Pique, Busquets, Sergi Roberto shone brightly when they had to because culers want to beat Barça’s eternal rival more than they want to breathe. They want to go into their house, stomp on their souls and walk out. Today’s victory was, in so many ways, more exquisite than the 2-6, more fun than the Manita, more devastating than the 0-4 because this wasn’t supposed to be a loss. It was expected to be, at best, a draw, as their comeback kids did it again, snatched points from the jaws of defeat again. Statisticians were telling us how many times it had happened this year.
A tousle-headed young man from the Barça academy didn’t care about any of that, didn’t care about what was supposed to happen as once again, he became a giant as a time when ordinary players become tiny. And he ran, and ran, and ran a bit more, knowing exactly what to do with the ball because he had been trained in that since a wee lad doing kickabouts.
A man whose career road is paved with milestones, slammed home his 500th goal on a day when his team needed him, a strike that helped put the hated rival to the sword, who stared pressure in the face as he has done time and again, then did what he does better than anyone else in the history of the game.
Pressure. Gomes knew what to do, Alba knew what to do, nobody had to question whether Messi knew what to do. At the end of it all was a piece of psychic evisceration that ended with the greatest of them all displaying his shimmering blaugrana flag, emblazoned with the name of the knight who slayed the dragon. As the official site said, Sant Messi Glorios. What more need be said?