A fascinating thread on Twitter about happiness, Ronaldinho and Messi brought me here, to a keyboard to do what has happened so many times. The thead made us consider joy as something different from happiness, and how Messi exists as a being seeking happiness as related to how Ronaldinho ecists as a being seeking joy, or happiness, or something.
Shortly after taking part in that thread, I got to thinking about sporting passion, the nature of fandom, and what prevents us from just enjoying something for exactly what it is.
When Michael Jordan became a global advertising icon by saying nothing, it was remarkable. He looked at the camera, with that bald pate, goofy smirk and flappy ears, and people lapped it up. Why? Because you could project anything that you wanted onto him — hopes, dreams, insecurities, fears. He was the ultimate fan mirror.
When Jordan was discovered to be human, with gambling weaknesses, alleged extramarital affairs and the like, people didn’t quite know how to react to that, how to deal with the simple reality that we don’t know anything about the people that so many idolize. Messi has that same quality. He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t grant tons of interviews, doesn’t have quotes floating around out there.
When Messi plays, his face is usually a blank mask, that lights up only when he helps his team achieve success. In talking about Messi, it was easy for me to speculate that he would be happier scoring 20 goals and winning a treble, than scoring 60 goals and winning nothing. But who the hell knows? Maybe he is wracked by the drive for individual achievement. Maybe he pores over his stats after every match, and watched rivals for individual honors. Maybe not winning Ballon d’Ors, as many as he deserves, drives him nuts.
Or maybe the only thing he cares about is winning, for club and country, however he can — goals, assists, passes, whatever. Maybe football is a job, the thing that he is best at, and he approaches a day at the office like an accountant, and goal celebrations are like blowing off steam when a complicated tax return is finished. We have no idea.
None of the normal parameters apply to Messi. A few years ago, it seemed that he had lost a step, that he was struggling, that the meteor was coming to earth, and a great many people were talking about what next, including selling him. The tone of the times led to me posting a query on Twitter, asking if people would consider selling him for the money it would take to acquire a quintet of players who were, at the time, all the rage not only in football, but among culers: Ilkay Gundogan, Kun Aguero, Marco Reus, Oliver Torres, Jackson Martinez.
A few people took it in the vein of harmless speculation that it was. It wasn’t my decision, my views affected nothing. But in the here and now, in certain parts of Twitter, my handle is that of the person who would sell Messi for Jackson Martinez. My general reaction now is to block anyone who approaches me with that, because they aren’t interested in football and the people who play it as intellectual exercises. People have told me that they wish I would catch a bullet, or die in some way. They have hurled racial slurs my way, done all kinds of things in the name of fandom, the thing that relates to us trying to know the unknowable, painting pictures of how we think they are or how we want them to be as members of an adoring public.
A journalist noted that Cristiano Ronaldo was having a fantastic 2018, and people lost their minds, hurling insults, accusations and the like, saying that the writer didn’t rate Messi, was a Madridista, etc. It was unsettling. Idols should bring balance to our lives, make us strive for more in the vein of the things that their excellence embodies, rather than turning us into hyper-defensive balls of fury.
Meanwhile, Messi just wants to play football, just wants to be a footballer. It doesn’t matter how we see him, or want to see him. He is what he is. What is astonishing about him as an athlete is that he is defying physical logic. Players slow as they age. Thirty years old is the magic number. But as a player, Messi is more decisive, more effective, seemingly untouched by age. He makes fools out of people who suggested, myself included, that he might be seeing the reality of the years and years in his legs, the runs and tackles, the attempts to kick him off the pitch.
We can say that he doesn’t care what we think, but we don’t know what he thinks. Andre Gomes was affected by what supporters thought and said, he revealed. Victor Valdes as well. Does Messi care? We have no idea.
When natural phenomena occur, from something as rote yet amazing as a sunrise, to meteors and volcanoes, people try to explain them with science, try to know the unknowable, rather than just standing back and saying, “Holy shit. Looka that.”
What Messi has taught some of us is that the rules don’t apply, that we don’t need to know him, that all we need to do is sit back and enjoy him, while we have him. He recently alluded to a time when he would hang up his boots, a time nobody wants to see because Barça and football won’t be the same. A thread started on Twitter, asking people if they would continue to watch football when Messi left the game.
In many ways, that makes sense. There will never again be a player who receives the ball anywhere on the pitch and alters your breathing. Sometimes you hold it in anticipation, other times you breathe a little harder. Every time he touches the ball, something remarkable can happen. We don’t even hold him to the same standard as other players when he loses the ball, because of that history, like the exhalation and acceptance when a violin virtuoso misses a note while attempting an impossible cadenza. You applaud the effort.
Messi is, like all great athletes — not good ones, not exceptional ones elevated by hype and public relations machinery, but those once-in-a-lifetime beings — a natural phenomenon. Something happened to create him, to make his body, skills and every fiber of his being coalesce into something incredible. We are drawn to that, drawn to greatness. His implacable nature becomes, as with advertising world Jordan, this mirror onto which we can project anything that we like, can claim to know things about him, can know the unknowable. It’s hero worship.
Another Twitter thread, a long one, compiled video clips of Jordan facing off against lesser players, usually white ones. It ignored that compared to Jordan every player in the game was a lesser player. Its objective was to elevate LeBron James via denigration of the man that many still think is the best to ever play the game. That is what happens, sometimes, to hero worship. A myth becomes so outsized that people have to chop it down so that they can erect another one. Two statues can’t exist in the same sculpture garden. But why can’t both be amazing, and legendary? Why can’t we just enjoy what we have? This is what Messi taught me in the wake of my intellectual exercise of many years ago. I have no idea what he teaches others.
Based on what we now know about the careers of those five players, I would have been the dumbest technical director in the history of football. Or maybe I would have flinched at the time of the deal, or the club board would have said, “You jackass, people would skin us alive if we sold him.” Who knows? What I do know is that all of the people who still freak out over that tweet, all of the threads, the impassioned Twitter defenses when someone, anyone, says anything that might be construed as even remotely negative about Messi, when anything at all happens that someone, somewhere thinks might make that flame of greatness flicker just a bit, human reactions make you think.
But more than that, watching Messi makes you think. So many have written about so many things that might motivate him. The essential reality is that we don’t know. We can’t know. So what is wrong with just sitting back and letting something amazing happen. Just let Messi play football, and let’s marvel at his exploits. Those amazing endeavors are what we know. All the rest is us, making semantic and psychological conceptual art, things that exist in the mind of the creator.
The goals, the passes, the assists, the moments — those are reality. Just let the man play.