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.