How jaded fans can still appreciate Lionel Messi on the 15th anniversary of his Barca debut
Sporting greatness is a form of anesthetic -- it has a numbing effect. The first time you watch Simone Biles skip across the floor, Roger Federer execute a perfect drop shot or Lewis Hamilton take a corner in the driving rain, you're utterly enchanted. By the hundredth time you see them do it, there's a danger that you will become immune to the sheer wonder, the same way you might if you'd grown up with your bedroom looking out toward the Northern Lights.
For that reason, there's a risk that football fans will fail to cherish Lionel Messi. He does the extraordinary so often that it becomes, well, ordinary. As a result, we sometimes regard his breathtaking acts with the nonchalance of bar staff in Berlin.
Many of us have been guilty of this, this author included, but on the 15th anniversary of his Barcelona debut, a 15-minute cameo in a friendly vs. Porto, it's worth reassessing his magic.
When Messi recently produced a master class against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League, a Wembley performance just as majestic as the one he had given in the 2011 final against Manchester United, several people sneered something to the effect of, "Well, he does that every week." Part of that snark was due to the fact that Messi seems to blow certain minds only when he excels against English opposition, but part of it came from so much familiarity with his brilliance. It thus seems important, at this point, to issue three simple guidelines as to how those jaded by his genius can still cherish Leo Messi.
The first thing is to judge Messi not by what he does but by what is happening around him. The bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai reaches the astonishing speed of 302 kilometres per hour, but you only really get a sense of how fast that is once you look out the window. It's only then, once you see your train fly past high-performance cars on long stretches of parallel road, that you truly understand.
The next time Messi scores a goal that would be the highlight of most players' careers yet might not even be the best goal he scored in that match, you should carefully consult the replay and pay close attention to the defenders nearby. One thing is guaranteed: There will be at least one opposing player who has had time to prepare himself for the arrival of Messi yet finds himself utterly powerless.
It's in the sequence of that player's body language -- the involuntary shudder of panic, the rattling ankles, the helpless lunge, the hands on forlorn hips -- that you can see the greatness of Messi and will cherish it anew. Because in that moment, you will watch what the defender does and find yourself almost pleading: But the poor defender didn't do anything wrong. He didn't deserve it.
Nigeria's Kenneth Omeruo didn't deserve it. He was marking Messi when the Argentine scored a mere marvel at the 2018 World Cup. Omeruo's body position was excellent, as was his acceleration the moment Messi received the ball. He did everything a good player should do in that situation. But what did poor Omeruo get for his trouble? Watch him. He tumbles head over heels and ends up on his knees, as if desperately praying to football's gods. But football's gods aren't home. They're busy watching Messi.
Briefly, and on that same tack, the second thing you need to do is remember that everyone is watching Messi, mostly in awe. He is so gifted that even his fellow world-class professionals stop whatever they are doing to gawp at him. Heath Ledger was said to be so sensational during the filming of "The Dark Knight" that when some of the other cast members heard he was on set, they would come in to watch him work. Messi is uniquely distracting; he demands your attention.
The final thing you need to do is to remember that Messi is human. He might at times seem like a celestial object soaring above us, a shard tearing apart the darkness; he might feel like something strange or untamed, a distant spear flung by an unknown hand. But he is utterly human, with demonstrable flaws. Just ask the Spanish tax authorities. Like many a drunk uncle at a wedding, he has hilariously grabbed the mic after one too many drinks. He's the animal lover playing about with his dog; when injured, he's the football fan supporting his team from the stands or watching Jordi Alba score with the expression of a doting dad.
We often have a tendency to elevate those with sublime talents to the realm of sainthood, and we sometimes forget that, when all is said and done, Albert Einstein was just another guy with a lab coat and a stick of chalk.
It's because Messi is thoroughly mortal that his feats are all the more remarkable: He's a normal man with a stellar day job. That's why we should cherish him, wherever possible, because most of the time, including on the football field, he's just walking around like the rest of us. And then, for those few thrilling seconds, he explodes gloriously forth from our orbit, leaving even the night sky behind him.