The psychology of Messi and adoration

Lionel Messi is the most adored player ever witnessed in my years of loving this crazy game. Everyone wonders what the game is going to do when he leaves, where will the arguments come from, or the highlight moments.

A weird thing going on right now is a fabrication of an agenda against Messi, not only in the wake of the infamous Burofax, but most recently by people pointing to a short clip of him not pressing as time wound down against Dynamo Kyiv. And people rushed to his defense against those who would besmirch his honor by pointing out that Messi isn’t pressing, and railing against agendas, and talking about how people “hate” him.

When the now-infamous Quique Setien quotes came out, people again leapt to the defense of Messi and all things angelic, taking up arms to battle the “anti-Messi agenda.”

There is no anti-Messi agenda. Messi has been walking since about 2010, and people have been pointing that out. It doesn’t mean they hate him, only that they’re pointing something about. The very notion of hate, or being a hater needs a rethink, mostly because hate is a strong word, even if slang has neutered it to mean being a detractor. Pointing something out and asking a question isn’t really “hating,” or even mild dislike. It’s just … a question.

Luis Enrique’s 2015 team won a treble with Messi walking. Ernesto Valverde did the league title twice with Messi strolling about like a flaneur in the countryside. Barça isn’t not winning because Messi is strolling. Barça is not winning because everything around Messi has declined to the extent that Messi’s walking is a more significant problem than it should be. “The team would be better if Messi pressed.” Guardiola found a way to play some of the most beautiful, successful football in the history of the game with Messi strolling. It shouldn’t bother any of us that he strolls. It’s the rest of the stuff that should. The age, the indiscipline, the lack of a coherent tactical plan, the fixed-in-ink geezers who pepper the XI with their creeping decrepitude.

Yet people, every time someone asks anything remotely contstrued as negative about Messi, people storm the ramparts to hurl rocks at his army of detractors. Nah.

But it is because Messi is so beloved that anything at all that isn’t “He farts rainbows,” is seen as “OMIGOD why y’all hating on Leo?!” Heroes are odd things. We need them in every corner of our lives. Politics, human rights, sport, heroes are a fundamental part of the aspirational side of human nature that wants good things. Every time Messi touches the ball, still, even in his dotage, we wait for something amazing to happen. He’s caught from behind more easily, dispossessed more easily, hasn’t scored from open play in ages but to us, he’s That Messi. Will always be. We need heroes. And we also need things to fight against, so we create things. It’s human nature.

It’s been said before and is worth saying again. Messi doesn’t need anyone to defend him. Messi is fine. His status in the game is secure. What is insecure is love. Love needs like minds, love needs support for its adoration. Love needs to leap to the defense of someone or thing that doesn’t need defending, for the affirmation of legions rushing to buttress the defender. “Those people are crazy. D10S is the greatest.” And all is right in the world again, even if it was never wrong.

There is something beautiful going on with Messi right now, however, as he becomes human. Messi used to be a reliable human highlight reel. He didn’t talk, we only saw social media snippets of a perfect life, complete with lovely kids and the right, massive, adorable dog. But suddenly, gradually, culminating in the Burofax episode that roiled the summer, Messi is now kinda one of us. He hates his boss, wants to find a better place to work but is worried about moving his family, ultimately finds a reason to stay put after all. He grumbles publicly about his boss, is erratic in his on-the-job performance. It’s been amazing to watch.

Those who know me know of my belief in not being a fan of any player, but human Messi is a lot more likable. When he said “Hey. Shut your hole.” the first time a board member muttered something in public, it was a delight. He corrected Abidal about work ethic, gave interviews, became increasingly vocal as that shy kid from Rosario grew into the captain’s armband. And then came the Burofax, something still misunderstood, and a gesture some of us choose to interpret as being done out of self-love and love for the club.

My contention has long been that Messi knows better than anyone else his capabilities, and wasn’t going to stay at Barça one second past him thinking he could meet his own standard. It’s easy, in the hindsight of events, to wonder if he knew and understood that time. Watching his play this season, a lot is clear. At first, many contributed it to mental attitude. Nope. But it’s that visible decline that makes Messi even more human, and makes his adoring legions even more attuned to a discouraging word.

When Messi was leaving defenses for dead, smashing in free kicks with joy, dishing out telepathic passes and raising hell on the pitch, who needed to say anything? Just look at him. It’s beautiful when heroes age, as long as they are allowed to age properly. Sean Connery, who recently passed away, didn’t spend his entire cinematic career playing James Bond at varying stages of the super agent’s life. He moved on to a series of roles that took fullest advantage of where he was at the moment. Messi tried to do that this summer. Bartomeu didn’t let him, nor did people want Bartomeu to let him, even if they should have.

When Michael Jordan returned from his retirement, in a different jersey at a different team, it was wrong. And weird. And damaging. Jordan, ever attuned to his legacy, cut that experiment short before he did too much damage. It was the right move. Psychologically, we want our heroes to never age, even as they do. But we can only do so much to compensate for declines in our adoring heads. And that’s where love and psychology come in. Instead of having haters, it seems from over here that Messi has never been more adored than he is right now, even if some of that adoration is tinged with sadness. If your heart didn’t drop at the casual way Sergio Ramos dispossessed Messi late in the Classic, you aren’t human. But we always cling to things that we adore more closely as we feel them slipping away. That, too, is part of being human.

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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.