The dagger

Lionel Messi isn’t nice.

This will shock some of you. And the meaning of “nice” isn’t as in that humane, human quality that prompts us to do lovely things for people, to hug puppes and cry at sad movies. Messi not being nice refers to the competitive side of things, the pure, unmitigated sonofabitch that every magnificent, life-affirming athlete has. It’s a streak of evil that is silent, and deadly, and motivates them to become better than they are, motivates them to kill.

Michael Jordan, in the image above, has just hit the shot that gave the Chicago Bulls their last NBA championship. He knew it. It was during the last three minutes of a match that the Bulls had no right to win, a stretch of time during which, among other things, he missed a shot, knew he had missed, knew what the opponent would try and darted back to steal the ball. He scored, assisted, defended and then, finally, dropped home the winner in the face of the man deputized to stop him fron doing precisely that.

It was not nice in that way that defines a fierce competitor such as Jordan, such as Messi. Michael Schumacher was another one. Someone once asked me what the difference was between Schumacher and other great drivers, and I replied, “If you put his mother at the apex of a crucial corner, he wouldn’t lift.”

This quality is more than ruthlessness. Many athletes are ruthless, even as they aren’t greats, or geniuses. Andres Iniesta is nice. You almost get the sense that he feels bad as he eviscerates someone. Look at the apologetic way he helps up an opponent after twisting him in to a knot, or getting stuck in, a pained expression like it genuinely “hurts me more than it hurts you.” Even as we don’t know players, we pretty much know that Iniesta is a genuinely nice person. We can only suspect that of Messi, because he doesn’t give us anything to read on that stone face of his. But his heart is gloriously impure, part of what makes him a perfect killing machine, a destroyer of hopes and dreams.

Look at the run on his first goal, the concentration, the destruction he left in his wake. Defenders who are top class were made to look like fools by a player whose heart is, in the heat of battle, ice. It isn’t even that Messi dislikes opponents. The quality strikes me as that of an exterminator who is indifferent about the insects he obliterates, but understands that this is the job, so that is what you do.

Jordan didn’t just want to win. Jordan wanted to kill, wanted to shatter hope so that the next time an opponent faced him, they would be thinking of that last time, would hesitate when they should act. The first goal for Messi set up the second, the hesitance that was crucial to him finding space. Opponents wouldn’t get near Jordan once it was clear that he was on the move to the basket, becuase they didn’t want to be “posterized,” preserved for posterity in the image of a great athlete doing something remarkable.

In the shot of Messi, just after he removes his shirt, he is surrounded by prostrate Real Madrid players, as if he has destroyed everything on the field of battle, standing as he surveys the vanquished. What Messi did after that goal isn’t the action of a person who is psychologically nice, nor is it supposed to be. He heard the “subnormal” chants, heard the wished for an injury, heard all the things that opposing supporters scream at a player whose sole intention is to destroy their hopes and dreams. They screamed at him. Marcelo elbowed him in the mouth, making you think of those scenes in every Bruce Lee movie where the bad guy harms him. Lee slowly moves a hand to the wound, places a finger on it and tastes his own blood. And his face changes. Marcelo smamshed Messi in the mouth, and life imitated art. Would Messi have been as competitively violent had Marcelo not done what he did?

In normal circumstances, as much as we can speculate about the mind of an inscrutable genius, it is not certain that Messi wants to destroy. Messi wants to win, to be sure. But at times the game almost seems like pure joy to him, something not to be sullied by baser emotions. He makes a run for the pure joy of being free with the ball with a world of possibilities in front of him. It’s the challenge that brings the joy. Defenders are just things to be surmounted. The evil waits in abeyance, like that Dark Side that gave Skywalker that extra something to kick the crap out of Vader.

A Miami Heat player whose name has faded into the mists of time, once trash talked Jordan, who was having an off night. And the Bulls were losing. Jordan’s face changed after one jibe too many, his contentration sharpenened and suddenly, he became a demon. He destroyed the player he was facing, destroyed the Miami Heat and helped the Bulls come back to win. Legend is that then Heat coach Pat Riley said to the player, “If you’re passing Jordan in the hallway, don’t even say ‘Good morning’ to him!” It doesn’t take much for an assassin to wake.

Thierry Henry said something to the effect of don’t make Messi mad, because you won’t like him when he’s angry. Marcelo and Real Madrid woke that evil side of genius, the side that — more than being competitive — wants to destroy. Everything that had happened up until that moment, in so many Classics before, culminated in a completely silent moment that spoke with a million decibels. At the Camp Nou, in the wake of the PSG comeback, Messi screamed, exulted with the home supporters. At the Bernabeu, his shouts would have been lost in a miasma of invective. And what could Messi have said that would have been more eloquent, louder than “Look at this. Look at who did this. Say the name. Look at the colors. I did this to you, and you can all go straight to hell.”

Messi isn’t nice. It’s what makes him magnificent. We all wonder how he can take foul after foul, get up and continue. In some ways you wonder if Neymar being the new pinata for opponents has robbed us of some Messi Rage moments, or if opponents have realized that they won’t like Messi when he’s angry, that they’re better off letting him make a run and hoping he will miss or the keeper will make a save than clearing him out. Because then you give up the free kick, and he’s mad, and you are probably screwed.

If Neymar wants to understand how to get to the next level, he would do well to study the match that Messi played after the elbow. He didn’t make any card gestures, didn’t scream in protest. He got up, walked to the sideline and worked as quickly as he could to stop the bleeding so that he could get back to work, focus renewed, heart a stygian shade of black. Not everyone can internalize rage in that way. The greats can. A hard foul on Jordan usually got a dunk in return, or a jumper stuck in the face, the hand held aloft just that fraction of a second longer. It’s the action of a player who wants to gut you, not because of anything personal unless you make it personal.

After The Shot, Jordan retired. It was a moment so pure, so complete, what else was there, like General George Patton, and his desire to die from the last bullet of the last shot of the last war. That’s it. A perfect gesture. Messi isn’t going anywhere, but he fired the last bullet, the last shot in the last war of this season. And he wanted the world to know who did it, wanted to rub faces in it, to leave no doubt. It wasn’t selfish, no “Hey, look at me,” gesture. Messi identifies with his team fully and completely. Messi is Barça.

When Messi removed his shirt, a rare, rare thing after a goal, and strode over to the stands, nobody knew what was going to happen. Nobody would have predicted what did happen. It was a perfect gesture for a perfect moment, an expression of rage, joy and pure evil. And it was beautiful.

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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.

20 Comments

  1. Davour
    April 24, 2017

    I love the analogy to an exterminator who quietly goes about his work. Or a tactician, coldly analysing the situation before choosing the best option. Messi obviously wanted to bully Casemiro by humiliating, degrade him, because that would open up space for Messi to do those other things that win matches. Either Casemiro would lose his temper and be sent off, or he would back off. Either way, good for Messi. Really, imagine the stones on Messi, attempting those dribbles mid-pitch on several occasions; if he fails, he looks silly and RM get a possible counter. But he didn’t fail, because when he is turned on, focused, he so rarely gets dispossessed – even when he fails the dribble, he still manages to hold on to the ball, as if he knows half-way in that it is not going to work, before the opponent realises it, and aborts his mission to instead start over. Iniesta has a little of that, too – Neymar, more extravagant in his moves, does seldom have this option.

    That vision, the insight, the quickness of thought and control of the situation… yes, beauty – just like the control on that last shot, so easy to overhit or not get precisely right. I couldn’t believe it, really, because it was unlikely – but is Messi: unlikely!

    • April 24, 2017

      I knew Barça was going to win yesterday. The BeIN feed is about 30 seconds behind the live match feed. Even that late, I kept watching Twitter, waiting for the “GOL!” Tweet that I was expecting. I still went nuts in my man cave, but the feeling was weird.

  2. georgjorge
    April 24, 2017

    I don’t know anything about basketball or Michael Jordan, but the comparison seems apt. The game against Bayern in the CL semifinals two years ago was another example – he wasn’t kicked around in that game, but he surely had a point to prove.

    Regarding Neymar, I think we’re already seeing this evolution of him. Sure, at times there’s still a lot of complaining and asking for cards from him. But of late, he has had a number of games where after being kicked one time too many, or too harshly, he just quietly got up and went about humiliating defenders as if he had a point to prove. That doesn’t always result in goals, but it results in yellow and sometimes red cards for defenders who are not calm enough to let themselves be humiliated this way.

    On a sidenote, Ramos said after the match that he “wasn’t trying to hurt Messi”. That’s good. But I really don’t want to know what he does to players that he WANTS to hurt, especially ones not as quick at jumping out of danger as Messi.

  3. Hamid
    April 24, 2017

    Well said Kxevin. Messi is Barça. While there is a quasi-unanimous agreement that the team’s performance has declined this season, we should take a few moments to savor this sweet victory and to celebrate Messi (again!). Sure, this was a team’s effort, but few would dispute the fact that this little guy has been carrying the team on his back for so long now. His brilliance has both masked barça’s collective failings and challenged its opponents’ strengths. The club still has a shot at a domestic double. RM’s calendar is more complicated than ours, but we have to approach the remaining games (each is a final now) with the required focus and intelligence. LE should rest the key players against Ossasuna so they can be ready to play the tough Espagnol side. In la Liga last year, we won the last 5 games, scoring 24 goals and conceding 0 goals. We can do the same this year and hope that RM stumbles.

  4. icemel
    April 25, 2017

    Spot on.
    5 when years ago Hernan Casciari taught us that “Messi Is A Dog” I pictured some hyper indefatigable border collie,…but what what Marcello, Ramos and company woke up yesterday was a Cerberus. Final seconds etched in hellfire. We won’t forget this one.

    Nice to see the evil genius of your pen is aging nicely too, Kev.
    Nothing like re-savoring a Classico at the BFB!

    • ooga aga
      April 25, 2017

      Icemel! Folks, this is a voice that was regularly heard in these parts 5 years ago. or is it ten years? Welcome back icemel! Great to see how people come out of the woodwork to celebrate messi moments.

      • April 25, 2017

        Back, and with his own poetry. Wonderful to hear from you, IceMel.

        • icemel
          April 26, 2017

          Great to be back. Seems like yesterday I applauded Isaiah-dinho at the height of his powers chipping over the offside(.com) trap right to the feet of rising canterano star Baby Kevin who then chipped the keeper for his first blaugrana goal (first official post.)
          Was that 10+ years ago now???…getting old!

          Hey Ooga…well I remember those BFB glory days, half a decade back or so when you could waste a whole morning reading comments, and multiple daily posts rained like confetti, hectoring the unwary commenter to quick oblivion.

          Seems a bit calmer now.

  5. untoxgsd
    April 25, 2017

    In other news: Ramos gets banned for a single game whilst Neymar for three… Lets what else the spanish sport authorities will do so that Real lifts la liga!!

  6. omoh
    April 25, 2017

    Guys. I just heard a rumor that Ramos was given only a match ban for a Direct red card and sarcastically applauding the referee. Is this true? Someone should confirm this please.

    I am angry as hell right now.

    • Davour
      April 25, 2017

      Yup. Apparently they went for the explanation that he applauded Piqué, not he ref. Though, if I remember correctly, Ramos did challenge the ref quite aggressively. Either way, to me this is just another chapter of how absurd the rules are regarding these matters. Ramos tackle was a potential bone-breaker, but this is regarded as, less – much less – serious than applauding the 4th ref (Neymar), or expressing frustration (Messi for Arg.). RM legend Sanchis idiotically commented that it was not that bad because Ramos didn’t hit Messi… shouldn’t he know that this has nothing to do with it? It’s the force of the action, the recklessness, not the physical outcome, that matters.

      I feel conspiracy theories are pointless, since this is not the only occasion when violence is less severely punished than words. Honor culture? Perhaps video support for the refs can do something about this, as well as decrease elbowing and such.

      • Davour
        April 25, 2017

        Though one should note that Messi, too, had a rather (or as) reasonable explanation for his outburst, but I have heard nothing about any shortening of his suspension.

  7. omoh
    April 25, 2017

    I actually just confirmed it now and for the sake of my sanity I think I’ll rather take my mind off the league title and focus on being happy with my team.

    If Ramos can be given just one match ban for a “violent challenge” as described by the referee committee and ignoring the sarcarstic clapping, then I believe Madrid will do anything and everything legal or illegal to make sure they win the league. Only a divine intervention can stop the corrupt capital team from achieving it’s aim.

    I have full convinction that there is a conspiracy involved in all this. It is too frequent and one sided to just write off as conincidence. Also I don’t believe Its coincidence that Gil Manzano is chosen for Madrid match tomorrow.

  8. Víctor
    April 25, 2017

    Ramos’ clapping was clearly directed towards Pique. The footage clearly shows that. Other than that, it was a really bad tackle and, for that, it deserved more than a 1 match ban.

    Either way, it does seem that we can snatch La Liga from them. That victory over them at their own stadium and in the way it happened… it just has got to wreak havok on their mentality. It would be great that Barça wins la liga and the CDR and Madrid nothing. Hope Juventus win the CL.

  9. Víctor
    April 25, 2017

    And yes, it might sound ridicolous but insults and aggressions toward the refs have way bigger penalties than doing the same towards an opposition player. Yep, even giving a slight slap at a ref can result in a 6 month ban… while breaking an opposition player’s leg may result in a 3 or 4 game ban. It’s about respecting the authority.

  10. untoxgsd
    April 26, 2017

    I dont know if this is true but apparently Michel, Malagas coach, stated “I prefer to hand the title to Madrid than the win against them”. I mean for Gods sake!! Thats why Malaga has become suddenly a bogey team for us! Disgusting from La liga once again!

  11. Davour
    April 26, 2017

    A lot of shit floating around post clasico with suspensions and Marta Silva in VIP lounge and whatever. Disgraceful, all of it. But let’s not forget the beauty of this. Just re-watched the celebrations of the winner – it’s beautiful how even in the flurry of this, Messi makes sure to thank the people who set up the goal for him – SR, Gomes and Alba (and Luis’ butt!). I really like how this is a given in the team – acknowledge those made your goal possible! Team, not just you. Lovely.

  12. FinallyCrushingBuses
    April 26, 2017

    REGARDING the Marcello elbow, he was like Bart to Lisa Simpson, swinging his arms in circles, saying if you run into this it’s not my fault. It might have not been an intentional throwing of an elbow, but he certainly didn’t need to leave it hanging out there.
    REGARDING the Messi celebration, does anyone know if the owners box is up there? You know the one Pique said he spotted the tax prosecutor seeking jail time for Messi. Also, there is a clip of a Real fan making a gorilla impression towards the team celebration, ostensibly directed against Umtiti, and he just slapped the Barca logo with pride. Gotta love it.

    • Dar_vincy
      April 26, 2017

      I have no scintilla of doubt that it was intentional. The incidence mirrors the one where Pepe savagely stepped on Messi’s hand while he was on the floor without play occurring between them. For some reasons, perhaps due to their loyalty to Ronaldo, both of them always feel the need to brutally hurt Messi whom they see as the direct enemy of their leader.

  13. RT
    April 26, 2017

    I love this!
    And I love badass Messi! That celebration was something else!

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