Messi, silence and projection

Lionel Messi is a perfect superstar, even in his absolute stoicism.

In many ways, the job of a superstar is to be a blank canvas onto which we can project our hopes and dreams. When Michael Jordan took the advertising world by storm by appearing in commercials where he didn’t say anything, it was genius. What we want from players of whom we are fans is to, essentially, be our everything. They should excel on the field of battle, be great people with a wonderful home life, a real-life knight in shining armor who embodies all of our hopes and dreams. Who the hell wants to hear Jordan with a bit of a Southern accent and flawed enunciation?

Lionel Messi is another superstar in that vein, but in a much broader sense. Because he doesn’t talk much, he leaves a void into which his fans can project things that are their hopes, dreams and on the dark side of that, vendettas and insecurities. We see it every time someone dares to suggest that anyone holds a candle to Messi. Impassioned defenses begin, like people needing to defend the sunrise. It’s gorgeous, we need it, what more is there to say?

Right now there is a buzz among segments of the Barça fanbase that suggests Messi should leave Barça. This is based in notions of the club and board somehow not deserving him, not having done enough for him, that he would be better off elsewhere. These notions can exist because Messi doesn’t talk. The last time he said something in that context was in response to a board member who made ridiculous statements.

Messi is a void. Into that void flows a great many things, including notions that are best left alone. Because Messi has never said the sporting project sucks and the board is awful, people can project what they believe into that silence. The most tangible manifestation of this is a piece written by Rafael Hernandez, a Brazilian culer with a very large Twitter following. It was posted to CityWatch, a Manchester City fan site, and the subject was “why Messi should leave Barça for Manchester City.”

Whether anyone agrees with the piece isn’t the issue. What is on here is our constant efforts to know the unknowable. When we don’t and can’t, projection is left. The danger of projection when it comes to the unknowable is that it often becomes a mirror. What do we want?

The subject of Messi’s contract is one that is ongoing. Club president Josep Bartomeu says that it is already official, and just awaits the ceremonial signing. But there is yet another space in which to project. If you believe Bartomeu to be the living, breathing manifestation of all that is unholy, then he is a liar. The contract isn’t done and Messi can leave on a free in the summer. More projection.

Completing the projection trilogy is the Guardiola legacy, a thing that turned many Barça supporters into first Bayern, and now Manchester City devotees. It makes the notion that Messi would leave his boyhood club for the one coached by Guardiola, spitting in the face of Bartomeu, the perfect storm of those supporters’ hopes and dreams.

That supposition cares little about the player and his situation. There is a point to make. When we project what we desire onto our superstars, their actions become what we want, however we might present them.

For an old man, this all feels very familiar. When Michael Jordan was with the Chicago Bulls, there was the almost constant buzz that he would leave Chicago for a team that deserved him. The Hollywood of the Los Angeles Lakers, the money of Pat Riley and the Miami Heat. The Bulls general manager, Jerry Krause, was a squat, pugnacious man who always wanted to be the smartest one in the room. Fans and varied folks in the Bulls coterie didn’t like him. So the ongoing narrative was, “Krause is going to force Jordan to leave.”

Jordan stayed.

There were people convinced that Andres Iniesta was leaving because of many of the same projections driving the Messi speculation. Statement concerning his self-doubt were easy to project onto the sporting project and the board, leading to the conclusion that he would leave on a free. Some of us said that he would never, will never leave Barça, and were given reasons that we were wrong. Iniesta signed a contract with Barça for life.

As with Messi, Bartomeu said the agreement was done in principle, a notion not even as iron-clad as what he has said about the Messi contract. Yet the needs met by Bartomeu needing to be evi and a liar meant the contract wasn’t done and Iniesta would leave on a free, to a club that values him and has a better board, sporting project, etc. With Messi that thinking is escalated, past the point of all logic. How mind-bendingly stupid would Bartomeu have to be to lie about something as important to the club as Messi’s contract situation? That would, in effect, force the player’s hand and ensure that he would leave. The queues to sign a censure motion would look like the crowds for a victory parade.

But if you need to project your views onto Bartomeu, then he is that stupid, the contract isn’t done and Messi is leavimg for a club that deserves him. Like City. When Guardiola leaves City, what of Messi then? Surely the next coach won’t deserve him, as no Argentina coach has up to and including yesterday’s hero, Jorge Sampaoli. You also need to ignore the recent, eye-popping salary percentage figures that suggest quite strongly that Barça is fiscally operating under the renewed Messi deal already. Needs don’t bother with logic. There are still, after all, people who think Guardiola would still be at Barça were it not for the board. And they can believe that because there is no way, even via the coach’s own statements, to disprove that.

Athletic superstars make us kinda silly. Athletes such as Messi make us like that nerd who is on a date with the supermodel — paranoid. “I don’t deserve her, why is she here, she is going to leave any second, I know it. What will I do when she leaves. I wish she would just leave now, I can’t take this.”

Messi in specific brings to mind the joke about the kid who didn’t talk. For years. Worried parents tried everything, worried, visited doctors and still, the kid didn’t talk. Then one day the kid says, “Cereal cold.” The parents, stunned, ask why he hasn’t said anything in all the time leading up to then. The kid replies, “Until now everything has been fine.”

Messi is the kid, and we are the parents. We would be nuts not to imagine Messi doesn’t have standing contract offers from every big club in Europe. Messi can leave anytime he likes, something that was true from when he was a tousle-haired runt turning cartwheels as he eviscerated defenders. He hasn’t left. Through coaching change and club drama, he hasn’t left. Through a coach he allegedly hated in Luis Enrique, he didn’t leave. Through Tata Martino and sporting uncertainty, he hasn’t left. Into the void left by the departure of Guardiola, he stayed.

“Aha,” they say. “This is the perfect storm that he has been waiting for. He isn’t under contract, and his massive transfer fee is the biggest reason a team couldn’t meet his salary desires. Now that he can leave on a free, voila.” Again, how stupid would the club board have to be? As stupid as Arsenal’s management? Neither Ozil nor Sanchez are as essential to the continued fortunes, such as they are, as Messi is to Barça. Messi is quite actually everything to Barça. The club has given him everything that he wants, would give him anything that he desires.

So what in the hell would make him leave now? Crappy board? It was crappier under Rosell. The new coach has devised a system which has him on pace for astonishing goal numbers, the team has made transfers that solve key issues and is workimg on others and youth players have bright first-team futures. Why now? Is it as simple as City is now playing good football and winning? Like it or not, so is Barça, and Messi doesn’t have to uproot his life to enjoy that.

That is the danger of projection.

Weirder still is the idea that you can support a team yet actively want its best player to leave, an action that would fundamentally wreck the team you support. What is the value and logic in such a desire? Dunno. There are many who suggest that people who want that aren’t really Barça supporters. That isn’t for me to say.

What can be said is something far simpler: Just because a superstar doesn’t talk, doesn’t mean we know what they are thinking.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Yup, spot on, Kxevin. Have to say in my limited perusal of this Interwebbie thing I’ve never seen anyone suggest that he actually will , or indeed should, leave. Where are these people and what are they on ? Is it a hunt for clicks ?

  2. I will never understand Barca fans who want Messi to leave, unless they are really Messi fans and only supporting Barca as a by product. It’s the same logic (or lack thereof) that drives fans to wish that a Barca player doesn’t do well just to prove that they were right when they said it was a stupid signing. I may not agree with every signing the board has made, but I sure as hell want every single one to be a huge success. I was personally shocked when we signed Paulinho, I had seen him flop for Tottentham, but couldn’t be happier at how well he is playing. In fact I think right now be earning his way to a starting berth very quickly. His last outing was quite outstanding for a new player still getting to know the system and his teammates.

    As for Messi’s silence, not sure why he would say anything or needs to say anything. The club president said the deal is done, not much to say from my point of view. If some people choose to believe that he is crazy enough to flat out lie about such a thing well then that is their prerogative, but Messi certainly doesn’t need to come out and say anything himself just to prove those doubters wrong.

  3. In other news, the Catalan government has declared independence. What this means for Barça right now is uncertain. And the club is sitting on the sideline to await developments, which is correct.

  4. Thanks for the link, Hilal. Not a great article or argument for me. Pretty much pushing an anti board line rather than anything particularly to do with Messi.

    Kxevin, I agree the club is adopting the right stance in this mess. Bad times ahead. This will rattle the Scot Nat cage again ( watch out for them attempting to recognise Catalonia against the wishes of UK Gov ). It will also hit the ordinary people hard as starting tomorrow companies who have been thinking about it will begin concrete moves to relocate. Harder to judge what will happen to Barca. There will be pressure on the Liga to act. They won’t want to but might be between a rock and a hard place. Barca, I suppose, are only in the CL technically as a Spanish rep so if they are no longer part of Spain can they continue to participate ? I’d like to think our presence means too much to both football authorities but they also have political masters.

    On a much more important note, all of this is buggering up my planned extended stay in Barcelona in the spring to take in a couple of matches. Haven’t seen one for a few years now and doesn’t look like that’s gonna change anytime soon 🙁

    1. You should be okay, Jim. Might be some demonstrations, but a lot can change between now and springtime in a very fluid situation.

      Rajoy has called for elections and begun steps to dissolve the Catalan government. No idea on whether they will accede, but can’t imagine they would. It’s a stupid thing on the part of Rajoy. Spain should have authorized and let them hold the binding referendum. It’s doubtful that it would have passed. By refusing to talk about it, then going in studs-up on the illegal election, they played right into the Catalan hands.

      Now Spain will have to , at some point, almost certainly have to consider the use of force to effect Article 155. Given the verbal shot across the bow from the EU president about the use of force, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

      When my mother caught me smoking on the sly, she said “Here, take one of mine.” She smoked unfiltered Luckies then. She even taught me how to inhale. Once I stopped coughing, I vowed never to smoke again, and haven’t.

      There is so much to consider, from borders to currency to system of coalition government, not counting things such as whether there will be a standing army, etc, etc. Will Catalan citizens have dual citizenship in the eyes of that government. Passport? So much to consider before Barça has to think about anything at all.

  5. Thanks, Kxevin. I want to believe that but you’ll know the bad feeling we had ( and still have) on this subject despite doing it the ” correct” way. The problem for me is that nationalism is usually largely based on emotional rather than intellectual arguments and it’s only once you realise how much and how quickly things can change for the worse that some will pay attention.

    In Scotland we were told before the referendum that oil would reach 100 dollars per barrel. It has been scraping along at under 50 and even now with drastically reduced supply only reaching 60. We were told before the Brexit one that we’d be able to put £350m a week back into the NHS from the money saved from EU contributions and now we’re faced with a bill upwards of £50 billion just for leaving.

    We’ve also just had an argument over here regarding Brexit where the Chancellor pointed out that if we leave without a deal then the next day all external flights could stop. No permission from the EU or other countries to land or fly over and no agreement over passports ( we currently use EU ones – good luck getting into the USA with a non valid one) ! Probably exaggeration here but the point being it would be out of our control.

    The EU would love to see both sides talk but you have six or seven at least of its members with a vested interest in being as hard as possible on any ” illegal ” state given their own nationalism problems. Who are Catalunya going to trade with without any trade agreements ?

    With regard to Barca, once things get hard attitudes also harden and then anything can happen. I fear the separatists will, sooner rather than later, try to drag Barca into this. I think I’ll wait and see how things develop. It all depends whether Spain play the sensible long game here ( gradually trying to strangle the new “state ” ) or lose legitimacy as you say by forcing the issue.

    In all of this I’m reminded of a piece of dialogue from one of my favourite films ” Shakespeare in Love” ( screenplay by the great Tom Stoppard), when the theatre manager, Philip Henslowe, played by Geoffrey Rush , says:

    Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
    Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
    Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
    Hugh Fennyman: How?
    Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

  6. I became a culer before Messi was born. I think I can survive should he choose to leave. The club will also survive the way it has survived after Cruijf, Romario, Ronadinho, Guardiola, Neymar and many others. Mes que un jugador! I sure don’t want him to leave but I don’t believe that his (unlikely) departure would “wreck the team”. Messi is not (and should not be) everything to Barça. It is the other way around. Barça has helped Messi win everything a player can win. And if Barça were a nation, he would have won a World Cup too. He is also making tons of money. Let’s not forget that Messi is 30 now and by the time he adjusts to a new system in a new country, he will have to retire. He does not say a lot, but he is not stupid.

  7. Thx for your thoughts & link. I grow tired of the incessant speculation. I want to live in the now! As in today’s beautiful victory on the road against a tough tough Basque side who always has great support at home. Man, we gutted that out. Phil Schoen commentating on beINsport noted that titles are won off performances like that. No Iniesta. An off form Alba(didn’t know there was such thing this season). 70% pass completion at one point. Some of our play was unreal. The 5 touch play which Messi buried was breathtaking! Paulinho has to play. He links Buis & our front 3 so well. Another clean sheet! Suarez is almost there! 2 more games st most & he will begin putting them away. Great win! Excited for the team!

  8. It’s brilliant articles like this that made me follow u. Well written, well presented facts and logic. Well done kxevin

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