A former colleague, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, woke every day to take a picture of the sunrise. When asked why he performed this daily ritual, he said, “Because words fail.”
But even pictures don’t work. Once, driving through the Pyrenees on the way to (or from) Ceret, cresting a rise revealed the most astonishing sunrise. We pulled the car over, whipped out the cameras and popped away. Not a single image captured what we saw.
Without words, which aren’t going to do it, nor images, how are we left to describe Messi? The headlines on some alien planet read, “Diminutive resident masters spheroid, shaming Earthlings,” and higher life forms will smile knowingly, pleased at how well their experiment is working.
His goal reduced Rio Ferdinand, one of the best defenders in the history of the game, to a fan occupying a spot in the press box, screaming and pointing and making exclamations.
Last week, before the Malaga match, when another wee Messi entered the world, people Tweeted various congratulations. What crossed my mind was, “Chelsea is going to see a rested Messi, reeking of poop and baby powder.” And while we have no idea of the aroma, we know the rest. Messi was supreme, decisive without having played what would be considered one of his best matches even as it was one of his most decisive. He scored twice and assisted once, the 3-0 scoreline sitting like a burnished homage to the superiority of a man you might not even notice, were he to slide past you in a crowd in real life.
Sid Lowe, in his fantastic post-match recap, likened Messi to a puppetmaster as he described the defining moment in the match when Messi made five Chelsea players move in unison, starting, charging, then stopping in horror as they realized what was about to happen. If they knew, would they have made the same decision to charge at the best player anyone has ever seen? Of course. Because if you have your choice of a pair of assassins, do you take the master or the apprentice?
Thibaut Courtois will look back on that Ousmane Dembele goal, his first for his new club and a moment in an upward trajectory that seems as startling as it is satisfying, and believe he should have done better, could have done better. But this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, on the ledger where events are written out. No. Dembele was supposed to smite that football with venom, every ounce of energy in those twig-like legs, a piledriver assisted by rage, and relief, and talent, and satisfaction. This was the moment, this was the goal. It had to go in. Courtois was the ornamentation as the greatest player ever passed to a glittering aspect of his club’s bright sporting future. Dembele wasn’t even in the picture until he was. Messi knew he would be there.
How else was that going to go?
It was the biggest crowd in the Camp Nou this season, 97,000 bellowing believers who stretched at the capacity of the venerated stadium turned mall, supporters there to see an exorcism, to lay the ghosts of 2012 to rest, now and forever. What other agent could there be than Messi? Chelsea had to know, even as they had to play the match, had to have hope. But they knew. Their coach knew. After the match, when asked about Messi and his comments to him after the match, calling him a “super top player,” as if he too, was out of words, choosing to stack superlatives like a game of linguistic Jenga.
But there were so many stories on this storied night: Barça’s record against Chelsea and that torrid history, Dembele and his struggles entering the starting lineup in the biggest match of the season so far for his team, Messi, Gomes in the wake of his comments about his time at Barça. The psychic deck was stacked. Chelsea hit the post twice. Of course they did. Those shots weren’t supposed to go in, because Fate had a better story in mind. Messi had to shame the prodigal son, caper past the player who gave Barça life in the first leg with a bit of footballing optimism, had to slay the giant in the most cruel way, the nutmeg goal.
Umtiti was exemplary, again at his normal level but on a bigger stage, his exploits seemed somehow even larger. Like Messi, he defends with influence. He isn’t a slide tackler, a defender that rarely leaves his feet or finishes a match with his uniform dirty. He’s a geometry calculator that views trajectory, takes into account mass and velocity to arrive at a conclusion. And he is there, and defender is separated from the ball, or the wave of an attack dissipates against a human bulwark.
Ter Stegen was knitting like Madame Defarge watching the blood-soaked blade rise and fall, until he had to swing into action with a key stop. Pique was Pique, back in form and unhindered by a knee that hobbled him for too long as we screamed at his heartless Mister, who kept playing him. But that coach, Ernesto Valverde knew, just as he knew Dembele would be ready, that Gomes was ready to turn in a performance that would have had the Camp Nou faithful cheering even if they weren’t acutely aware of the necessity of them showing love to a family member who needed it. Valverde knew that Paulinho, who has been playing football for a YEAR now, was over his bum toe and moving with alacrity again. And we smiled as Willian capered up the sideline, and Paulinho let him dance before stealing his soul.
And Iniesta, the beatiful sprite who brought gloom to the sunny day after with news that he is considering a huge-money move to China in the summer but who, against Chelsea, was lustrous control. There was only one way this match was going to go, on this night.
There is talk of Messidependencia this season as every other, but this one is different. Barça did a half-speed mastering of Malaga on the weekend, a romp that happened as Messi cooed at his new son. People didn’t really worry, because this Malaga wasn’t That Malaga any longer and this, more dour Barça had less of the grasshopper about it and more of the Ant. Silly goals are mostly a thing of the past, even as after Chelsea, people talked about the team being defensively “shaky,” as if Chelsea was some friendly opponent rather than the defending Premiership champions, possessed of a hefty amount of talent.
Every Barça team has a musical analog, and this one is a classical concerto, specifically the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. The soloist leads and defines the beat and melody, even more than the conductor. The orchestra follows, echoes, taking off on sonic flights from time to time, beautiful moments, before handing everything back to the soloist. This Barça needs Messi in a different way, in an approach that has adapted to the player that he is now, a player who when opponents play him for the run, already has the perfect pass in mind. True Messidependencia would need him to score the goal, need him to do everything. This team can assist with a lovely allegro passage that sets up a solo, or a cadenza that slides the melody to the first violinist, who punctuates the movement.
None of the Messi goals against Chelsea, when you watched the videos, looked like they should happen. Too many legs, too many normal-sized humans in the way. And still the ball went into the net just like everyone knew it would. There was certainty.
Maybe that is the best way to describe Messi, if you were forced to use a single word: certainty. Right action, right moment, right execution, everything right with such alarming frequency that when something that isn’t exactly right happens, even he looks confused, like something is wrong, like the sun didn’t rise today. But the sun did rise, and it was beautiful, an amazing thing that we presume to be normal, like the squat genius who makes the amazing seem so ordinary with such consistency that we forget the wonder. It happened again, and it was amazing.