Everything is immaterial. Intention, congestion, derby, rules and logic. None of it matters. It doesn’t matter what Marca thinks. None of it matters.
When Lionel Messi stepped up to a free kick that he earned with one of his laser-like runs at the defense, it was just on the edge of the box. The score was at zeroes in a Catalan derby that was an aesthetic slog, despite the control and elegance that Barcelona tried to bring to the proceedings.
Just outside the box is a weird spot for a free kick taker. It’s too close to go high, too complex to hit hard. Getting it up and down is difficult.
It’s at this point that the story gets fascinating, because that player was Lionel Messi.
Analogies will be drawn to this goal and that goal, to this player and that player. But football doesn’t have an analog. You have to go to other sports, and even with those, there aren’t that many players. An athlete has talent. A top-level athlete has more talent. The great ones have something more, an extra gift that allows them to grace a sport.
Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky are three such talents, as is Messi. They don’t see what we see. Ray Hudson made a reference to Georges Seurat, French pointilist master, and it made a lot of sense. Painting with dots, creating something grand with the smallest of gestures, an artist who, in his head, has a sense of a creation that begins with the simplest of marks. A dot.
Messi’s pointilist gesture was a simple leg movement that lofted the ball toward the goal. It was a Panenka free kick, and it was audacious. It arced toward the goal in slow motion, in a place that froze the keeper and former Barcelona Masia product Victor Sanchez, in a peculiar bit of symmetry. Keeper looked, outfield player looked, finally one reacted, getting a head to it that only availed to steer it into his own goal.
In social media, people squabbled about the pettiness of Marca, the keeper of statistics and the Liga pichici award, in marking that moment of grace down as an own goal.
It doesn’t matter. The gesture, the result is the thing. It was beautiful, it was genius, it was the exuberant answer to a week spent wallowing in the miserable ineptitude of a return to the Argentina national team, the mark of a man liberated and playing like it. When Messi left La Liga, it was with the gleeful huzzahs of an absurd goal against Betis still ringing. The proud, fierce Betis supporters were moved to cheers, such was the quality of that goal. And now this. Marca can give it to whoever they want, that goal is Messi’s. It is also prosperity’s.
The weird thing about that goal is that it came out of nowhere. Espanyol was drawn up, as Sergio Busquets said, “ultra defensively.” They were playing to keep the point that they arrived with, playing turtle by sticking their heads out for occasional forays up the pitch, opportunistic moments that belied their intention. Kick any ball away, foul any player who dared threaten their box. This wasn’t the typical derby crapshow from them, but it was more nefarious beccause it was foul after foul, none hard enough to cause any alarm or cards, but sufficient to disrupt.
Barça dominated play even as they didn’t create much of a threat, and didn’t really look to before that remakable goal. But the team and its coach were patient, understanding that with all of that play and control, it was just a matter of time before the right can opener was found. All it took was time.
Late in the match, when the outcome was no longer in doubt, the BeIN announcing team of Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson talked about Barcelona and this win, and the manner of play, the expectation. It came after a lustrous second goal that started with Ter Stegen and ended with Messi, an ebulllient display of footballing freedom. They talked of memories and history, of the burden of its own history that a team must carry, a thing made obsolete by that very history.
Why can’t Barça play like it used to? Because football got tired of getting beaten down, and it adapted. Because nobody likes watching a blaugrana-clad opponent celebrate yet another goal. Back then, nobody expected that manner of play to become a regular method of destruction, so they didn’t know what to do. But they learned. It is that environment in which this team exists, a team that can and does create beauty when the opponent is complicit or caught in a moment of weakness, such as Espanyol on this day.
We sit in judgment bereft of context, accusing a group of aesthetes of wanting to finger paint instead of making art. We scoff that they can’t roll up against a team with everyone behind the ball and most of them in the box and create a 44-pass masterpiece of scoring elegance. Hudson and Schoen are correct, and if we don’t understand what we are seeing and how it affects what we see, we are poorer for it.
The team that we love, and love to watch, wins football matches. It does so by adapting to various circumstances and situations created by opponents, but we snarl about that as well. The game is supposed to exist in a vacuum of our theory about play, and if they just play the right way, beauty will result. But that isn’t how athletics work. An opponent can affect beauty, can affect out perception of what we see.
This match was decided by two extraordinary sequences, but the drama included a coming-out party of sorts. When Clement Lenglet was picked up in summer from Sevilla from 35m, it was usual reaction from a fanbase. “Who is this person?” But it was a brilliant pickup for a brilliant price, for a brilliant defender, even he was one different than the norm.
Lenglet is a reactive defender at his core. We are used to proactive ones, who defuse a situation before it becomes one. Lenglet intercepted an Espanyol shot that was goal-bound, and did it with sliding style. It was a little moment that on aggregate, wouldn’t really have affected the outcome. Espanyol wasn’t getting a result here. But the clean sheet mattered, and so did Lenglet, who stamped his name into the minds of culers when it should already have been emblazoned there in neon light.
Malcom came in after a too-long period spent in mothballs, and did more in a few minutes than Coutinho had done the entire match, including creating a perfect assist for Messi’s second goal with an exact right action. Barça was on the move, flying up the pitch, and a pass was spanked for Malcom to run onto. He picked up the ball and sped into the box. The obvious play was Luis Suarez, running and free, but Malcom had a better idea.
Messi was speeding into the box, trailing the play in a way that created goal after goal this season, allowing him to capitalize on chaos. Malcom placed that ball on a dime for Messi to smite home. Perfect goal, and an artistic moment. Malcom ran over to celebrate with Messsi and the rest of the team like he’d been there all along.
Coutinho started, and had a match. He wasn’t decisive, or particularly effective. He took passes, dribbled and danced, moved into positions like a player who still doesn’t have the fullest idea of what he is supposed to do, even as this is his second season with this team. He should know, but he’s trying, overtrying. It isn’t that he’s bad. It’s that he wasn’t really anything, but that wasn’t fully clear until Malcom entered the fray.
Valverde got the subs right. Again. Malcom came on to create pace and danger in ways that Coutinho couldn’t. Coutinho takes a pass, dances, drifts to the center and, confronted by the defense, passes. Malcom takes a pass and arrows toward goal. His objective is chaos, and it worked to upset a defensive-minded opponent, to keep them on their heels.
Sergi Roberto coming on for Nelson Semedo confounded us, then the Masia graduate started making those runs he always makes, and it made sense. Arturo Vidal came in and started doing what he usually does, which is to fight for stuff. And the team saw out the match in a way that was effective. It was pretty at times, and never fully satisfactory to those who lack the context to fully grasp the necessity of how a team plays, how it’s forced to play. And that’s okay. It’s okay because even a derby slog contains bits of grace, moments that elevate the mundane into something delightful, something beautiful. It’s at those times that football is art.