Ballons, silly individual awards, utilities and Messi

Every day, dozens of times a day, we turn a light on. We never, ever think, as we turn that light on, “Holy crap!” We never wonder about the series of connections made, links in a long chain that starts somewhere, never wonder about the cable, and transformers, and how it works every day, day after day. Yes, it’s a utility. It’s supposed to work. But it’s amazing.

Every day, dozens of times a day, we fire up a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device to connect to the world. And it works. It works so reliably that it’s weird as hell when it doesn’t, when wi-fi doesn’t click on to bring us cat videos, football arguments, matches streamed from hither and yon. The Internet isn’t considered a utility, but it is. And it’s amazing.

Lionel Messi is a utility.

We write reams and reams about how amazing he is. People on social media take up arms in debates about how amazing he is. Every year, season after season, Messi is the best player in football, with a coterie of wondrous plays, passes, runs and goals. People try to create new ways of measuring his excellence, because none of the old ways are anything other than more of the same. He scores goals that if done by another player, dude would retire. On the spot. Just take off the shirt and say, “That’s it. Can’t do any better than that, so I’m out.”

To Messi, those kinds of goals are just Sunday. Or Saturday. In thinking about Messi and his excellence, an illustrative anecdote from my wife, who used to work at a wealth management firm.

One day, she called a client. There was the usual banter, and when the client asked how she was, my wife said, “Oh, I’m good. It’s Friday, after all.” And there was silence. The client didn’t know what to say because where working stiffs mark their weeks by the weekend, waiting for Friday, when you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars, there aren’t days in the same way. Friday could be Monday, could be Tuesday. This is Messi’s game.

Luka Modric won Ballon d’Or this week, in something that wasn’t much of a surprise. He was World Cup runner-up, but the Real Madrid P.R. might, combined with the fact that Modric must be a nice guy, well-liked and respected by all, made it obvious. And nobody was really all that good, after Messi, who was his usual self, with an array of titles, Golden Boots, blablabla.

One journalist noted that while Messi was the best, he shouldn’t win all the time, so he voted for someone else. The journalist votes revealed a collection of weirdness, allegiances and other things — Benzema? Really? — as well as an absurdity: Messi was fifth in the balloting. Fifth.

And Barça Twitter went to the ramparts, hurling truth bombs at one and all, litanies of all the great things that Messi has done, why nobody compares to him, why the whole thing is a fraud, surfing the seas of dudgeon. But how many of those same people turned a light on and said, “Holy crap! Did you SEE THIS! Look!” Click. And did it again.

Our lives are filled with wondrous things that we take for granted. A former colleague, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, rose every day to capture the sunrise. He probably still does. When asked why he does it, he would say different things, but they all came down to, “So that I never forget how amazing it is.”

We have run out of ways to deal with Messi, to describe what he does. Married couples say, “I love you,” but what are they really saying? When you say it day after day for decades of marriage, surely there is a new way, some other words to describe the depth of feeling, the beauty and intensity that when you think about that person long and hard enough you almost start crying tears of joy. “I love you.” “Love you too.” And on it goes.

The spectacular becomes mundane, only if we let it.

It doesn’t really bother me that much that Messi didn’t win Ballon d’Or. It’s a silly bauble that doesn’t make sense, because individual awards in a team sport are silly. Modric was brilliant, but what if he was playing for Rayo, and had the exact same season? Nothing. He wouldn’t even have been in the running. Individual excellence in a team sport still needs context. A midfielder is great if the people to whom he passes the ball do the right things, if his team wins. A forward is as good as his service. Every matchday in leagues across the globe there are attackers who slide into perfect scoring position, but never get the ball. Football is a beautifully symbiotic thing, which makes it exquisite. The interplay, the formations, the timing that is almost balletic.

Antoine Griezmann sighed after he didn’t win, “What do I have to do?” Well, win more than the Europa League, for one. And get on a bigger team with a stronger P.R. machine, for another. But there is a lot of other stuff that we can point to. Team player? No doubt? Good stats? No doubt. But Griezmann needs teammates. Every player on that Ballon d’Or finalist list needs teammates. Mbappe needs that pass to run onto. Ronaldo needs the service, the movement, that moment where he gets the ball and knows exactly what to do. Everybody on that list, except for one player.

He takes a ball in midfield, surveys the pitch, and runs. He cuts, stops, starts, dribbles, nutmegs, stops, slaloms, runs, shakes off a challenge and shoots from some absurd angle. Goal. That’s Messi. We see it every week. We see it so much that sometimes we don’t see it. He scores goals, makes plays with such astonishing flair that we think they weren’t intentional, so absurd are they. He nutmegged Filipe Luis during a heated battle against Atleti, controlled with his chest, rolled it down his damn LEG, off his foot and between that poor man’s legs, and continued running. He had somewhere to be, after all. It was intentional, and stupendous. That it amounted to nothing except a laugh between friends and rivals should do nothing to diminish its majesty. It lived on in GIF form, but its wonder didn’t even survive the entirety of the match. That is Messi. He is his own standard, a living, breathing sequence of great moments.

As a player for whom there are so many Michael Jordan analogies, the Ballon d’Or is yet another. The NBA has a Most Valuable Player award. Legend was that Jordan could have, really should have won it every last season that he played. He led his teams, championship or otherwise in scoring, assists, steals. He defended, passed, worked, elevated, did everything for everyone. Every year, he was the MVP. But he didn’t win it every year because as with Messi, people just got sick and tired of his excellence, got inured to beauty.

Is some of it humanity and the propensity that we have for pettiness? Maybe. Damn that person who is so good all the time. Perfect smile, lovely family, no P.R. gaffes and just brings excellence week after week, match after match. Envy creeps in, for who among us doesn’t dream of being that reliably good any anything, much less the best of the best, head and shoulders in a world where only the best need apply. “Sighhhhh … can’t we vote for somebody else for a change?”

Many people say that Messi is underrated. He isn’t. He’s just a utility. He’s reliable magnificence of a level that makes us take it for granted. He steps up to a free kick, and when a golazo doesn’t result, THAT is the weird thing. Not the curler into the far corner. Messi isn’t underrated. Rather, Messi can’t be rated. There is a difference. My stepfather used to work at the local electric utility company, and he used to remind me how remarkable it all was. He had stories about outages avoided, about redundancies built in that allow things to fail in spectacular ways that we never notice because at our end, the power just works. So every now and again, I flip a light on and think, “Damn. Whoa.”

If you want to honor, really honor Messi, don’t whine about a silly individual award. Flip a light on and marvel at that. Revel in the Internet and how it just works, all the damn time. Don’t just toss off a casual, “I love you,” but understand the depth and the feeling of those words. It’s all everyday magic, just like the exploits of a squat, subdued Argentine. There isn’t an award for everyday magic, but that doesn’t make it any less magical.

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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.