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.”
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.